Zanskar Trek in the Himalayas
I embarked on a trek to Zanskar in the Himalayas, the mountain range dreamed of by any hiker one day in his life. Just back from this fantastic adventure in the Himalayan mountains in India, images and meetings fill the head. I take my keyboard to try to transmit you this extraordinary experience! In Zanskar is a Tibet in a quite pure state.
There are monasteries on top of the mountains, where religious festivals full of symbolism and colors are held. There are villages that maintain traditional Tibetan architecture and, above all, culture. One of the most characteristic aspects of the Tibetan culture, closely linked to rural areas is polyandry. What would happen if the little land, which is too little fertile, had to be divided into inheritance among all the brothers?
Here the concept of the heir does not apply. All the boys of a family marry the same woman. The children (of any husband) call the elder brother father and the rest of the parents as uncle!
It is possible to trek in the Zanskar Valley in 2 different ways. The most classic is a departure from Leh and arriving at Manali. An unexpected opportunity arose as one of my friends invited me to accompany him to Zanskar, where his brother was getting married. It is with joy that I accepted, delighted to discover this mythical valley and its customs still intact.
And finally came the day to begin our trip. The backpacks and the luggage are ready and we march towards the airport with many nerves praying for everything to go well, but above all, that incredible white wall called Himalayas awaits us.
DAY 1: DELHI - LEH
We arrive at dawn to the capital of India, but the flight to Leh, the capital of Ladakh, does not leave until 6:45 am. When we step on the terminal and see the chaos of people. We are afraid of missing the flight. After sweating to check the backpacks finally we boarded the plane to Leh. During the flight we enjoyed spectacular views of the Himalayas.
We arrived at Leh (3,500 m). We pick up the backpacks, which have inexplicably arrived in the middle of that chaos, and at the exit we see our contact and guide. We move to the hotel where we will stay in Leh, and there we review the itinerary, breakfast and rest. We took advantage of the afternoon to see the Spituk Monastery, just outside Leh. I quickly realize what it is to be at more than 3,500 meters. Here, acclimation is long and necessary.
The atmosphere is pleasant at this time of the year and the sun rays shine the peaks still covered with snow. The rest of the landscape hesitates between the greenery of poplars or apricot trees at the bottom of the valley, and the dry, desert flanks of the mountains, which seem at first sight very inhospitable.
DAY 2: LEH - KARGIL
We departed early in the morning from Leh towards Lamayuru. We started what will be a jeep adventure on impossible and winding roads that cross the mountains to reach Padum. We left Leh crossing a very militarized area, since we are in the border area with Pakistan and China. Soon after leaving the capital we gain altitude and start seeing the spectacular views of the Himalayas. On our left is always the Indus river.
Despite the slope, the road is paved and easily driven. It is the road that connects Leh with Srinagar, capital of Kashmir. A Rinpoche was expected there for a Buddhist sermon, and it was by the tens that the cars were flocking on the tortuous road. The procession was beautiful and colorful, like the perak that women wore, and this show launched our journey in the best way.
Before arriving at Lamayuru, we find a very peculiar landscape with kinship to the lunar geography, which they call it lunar landscape. We take the road again and continue ascending slopes and curves of 180 degrees. The road was more monotonous past Lamayuru, if we exclude the beauty of the landscapes. The bare, rocky mountains gave way to greener valleys, dotted with villages like oases.
We reach the highest point of the Leh to Kargil road at the Fotu La pass (4,400 m) where we enjoys beautiful views, as on the whole road. We continue the journey taking another step to the Namika La (3,800 m). With both steps crossed, Mulbeck arrived. It is a small village where we visited the statue of the future Buddha sculpted in the rock. After 9 hours we arrive at Kargil (2,800 m).
In the cafe where I stop, I ask for a room and one of the Tibetans invites me to visit his house. I need to rest and he lends me his bed in his kitchen. During this time, the owner buy mutton and make me a stew whose smell flatters my nostrils!
The owners wife invites me to dinner and I enjoy rice, fresh peas, tomatoes and yogurt. I'm here with Buddhists. We charge the batteries in the few hours of electricity that we have. The day goes on drinking Tibetan tea served in a decorated copper teapot. In the evening after peeling the fresh peas, I wait until 8 pm for a meal.
The lady offers tsampa. I have a good meal with rice, peas and sheep leftovers. We laugh a lot. The night is very cold but not as cold as in winter when villagers walk up the frozen Zanskar River for 90 kilometers and they hide in semi-caves after the chadar trek.
DAY 3: KARGIL - PADUM
At 5:30 am we have quick breakfast and keep the backpacks in the jeep, all ready to start the trip to Padum. The road for a few km is non-existent. The whole trip is through stone tracks with many slopes and curves, but what we see from the window of the jeep makes us forget the hellish journey. In the first part we find green meadows of rice plantation and in the background the immense snow-capped mountains under a blue sky. It is a beautiful contrast of colors.
On the way we can see the Nun Kun Peak. We now stop in the shade this time with an icy wind. It must be said that we are more than 4000 meters above sea level. Rangdum is a large green circus deep at the bottom of the red monastery on a rocky peak. There are flocks of sheep, horses and yaks in a landscape of high mountains, with glaciers, very wild, very deserted territory, very lost, thousands of edelweiss, streams or small lakes.
The fog covered the landscape and the wind began to blow violently. Halfway there is the Rangdum monastery in the middle of nowhere among the mountains. We see the Zanskar river, which is called Chadar in winter when it is frozen and visit the gompa where we are very well received by an old monk who lends his yellow hat. After visiting the monastery we continue along the steep road.
As we climb, the snow covers the entire rocky surface. After passing some passes we cross the Pensi la at 4,450 meters leaving Ladakh to enter Zanskar. We follow the path until we see the wonderful views of the Drang-Drung Glacier, which is located next to the track. Here we take advantage of a snack, stretch our legs and take some pictures, but above all, realize where we are.
The descent begins towards the valley and there are still many kilometers left and the trek becomes very tiring. We leave Sankoo. As we approached the Zanskar valley, the landscapes became grandiose. Between gargantuan plateaus and snow-covered passes, we could observe the local fauna, composed of marmots and wild horses.
The checkpoints allowed us to take some shots. Finally, towards the middle of the afternoon, we see the the great Zanskar valley spread before our eyes. Surrounded by the great chain of Zanskar, whose passes culminate at nearly 7000 m, we could see in the distance Padum, the capital.
After 10 hours of potholes and many stones we got it. We We were staying in a family home, a 2-hour walk from Karsha Monastery. Preparations for the wedding were well underway. Braving the bad weather, the women of the village already made the 1000 loaves for the guests, a Zanskari tradition. I helped with the task until mid-day, rewarded with smiles, jokes and chang, the local barley beer.
Half of the valley had been invited, and the other half had come all the same. The Nyopa, big disguised fellows, performed traditional dances and songs before going to get the bride on the other side of the valley. In the Zanskari tradition, the bride must repel the advances of the Nyopa for several days, before giving in and accepting to meet her future husband. In the past, the Nyopa moved on horseback and kidnapped the bride.
The celebrations ended, and it was time to take leave. However, my friend invited me on an excursion across the valley, an offering that I could not decline. The adventure at Zanskar was not over. We leave the backpacks ready and we go to bed early with much desire to start the trek the next morning.
DAY 4: PADUM - KARSHA
After a night under the stars on the roof of our host, we took the road again. We start the trek and left Padum at 3,550 m to walk across a vast plain first surrounded by green fields but after crossing a solid stone bridge, we find ourselves on a dry land and still flat but with some pebbles. The first stage towards Karsha is practically flat and smooth through the cereal fields.
It might sound like a boring walk but I do not find it absolutely monotonous because the further I get from Padum, the better the perspective. The ocher mountains with rugged relief are majestic and the play of shadows and lights fascinating. On the other side of the valley, we find the same kind of mountains with snow on the summit.
Halfway there is the Pipiting monastery. We visited it and followed the path. Already from the beginning we can see in the distance the Karsha monastery, one of the most spectacular monasteries of Ladakh, since it is embedded in the almost perpendicular slope of the mountain. It is the largest monastery in Zanskar and would be about 500 years old and contain 150 cells for llamas.
Once crossed the Stod river we ascend to finally reach Karsha (3,700 m). We installed the tent in a small grassy esplanade located at an entrance to the village. After lunch we visit the monastery and see the spectacular views of the valley. When I arrive in front of the chorten, which is like the gateway to the monastery, I am astonished to see this crowd of women who are busy giving the chorten its white color.
They are dressed in Tibetan dark clothes but with a pink scarf wrapped around the waist. As jewelry, they all have a necklace of turquoises and coral. Finally, they wear a brown wool cap and long braided hair. I am greeted with big smiles. The prayer room is very large and filled with wall frescoes. We climb even higher, on a terrace and watch the flags and mills that fly in the wind while listening to the bells clinking.
There are many buildings, some in ruins in this monastic complex. I meet many lamas who belong to the Geluk-pa sect of Buddhism. I do not get tired of the atmosphere of the monasteries when they are still alive and vibrant with Buddhist fervor. On the way back we rest next to the tent enjoying the sunset over the colorful Zanskar valley.
I really had a great day and I finished my evening in style enjoying fried fish and rice while admiring the starry sky and snow-capped mountains on a blue background.
DAY 5: KARSHA - PISHU
After the first night in the store, we wake up with our backs somewhat sore and after preparing the backpacks and boiling water we left for Pishu. The trip is hot and dusty through the valley. To our right we see how the Stod River and the Tsarap River converge forming the Zanskar River, which we will follow the next stages. As we advance, crossing the pastures of Rinam, we can see in the distance the wooden bridge that connects Pishu with the town of Zangla, which indicates that we will soon reach Pishu.
Once in Pishu (3,500 m), we set up our small camp on a large green meadow next to the bank of the Zanskar river. This is where we meet the man in charge of the horses who will carry the luggage and the heavy instruments during the trek. We take a tour to see the area and take a picture and return to the store to replace the forces that we will be missing from today.
We can also see another village in the distance and a white gompa on the top of a rock. There is a lot of people around us because this land is also very popular with a herd of miniature goats and donkeys that leave their mark all around the tents. It is also the privileged place for children from the village who come to play cricket.
I spend the end of the day basking while drinking chai. It's always a very pleasant moment, one where I can see the beauty and all the immensity that surrounds me. I can also remember my day, the landscapes I saw, the people I met and I take the opportunity to write a few lines in my journal. And then, of course, I think of the next day with the excitement of the unknown and the discovery that awaits me.
The women of the village cooked for a festive dinner where chang and arak flow. After dances with the Pishu pas, we see paintings, satiated with simple pleasures. It's the full moon, and the sky is clear and starry.
DAY 6: PISHU - HANUMIL
We soon begin the road to Hanumil. The wide valley disappears and we enter through a narrow path on the side of the mountain bordering the river. The road is much more beautiful than the previous days as the slopes begin, which will not be missing during the whole trek. Being so high the sun punishes our head and our physical performance.
When we walk in the mountains for several days, we get used to silence and a certain solitude because even if we are with a guide and a horse man, we follow each other, each in our thoughts while the hours scroll. I do not need to talk because I have mountains as companions.
Encounters take on a whole new dimension in the life of a trekker. Today is a special day because dotted with fortuitous encounters that touch me right to the heart. First of all, there is this group of boys that I meet after more than an hour of walking. All smiles, they proudly brandish their cricket bat and say that they walk for miles in the only goal to reach Pishu and its perfect playground to indulge in their favorite sport!
I am touched and honored when one of them gives me a gift of one of those little white scarves that Buddhists hang everywhere, around the statues, on the bridges as if I were receiving a blessing or a form of protection. It may be symbolic but I cannot help but think that from tomorrow, it is serious trek that awaits me with the next pass to cross and that I will certainly need some encouragement.
After 3 hours, I reach the village of Pidmo, and this time I am followed by a group of shy children who are probably more used to seeing strangers. We rest for a while in the shade and visit the local school. Finally, after my lunch picnic lunch, which is almost always a hard boiled egg, a boiled potato and a chocolate bar, I take a good foot bath in the river and get back in shape.
A woman who works in the fields stops and approaches me with a big smile. In this corner, there are many hawthorn bushes in full bloom. After picking one of these flowers, she hangs it on my hat. This simple gesture and full of attention is once again right for me. The sincerity and simplicity of all these small gestures made this day, one of the most special of this trek.
We leave the village and continue following the river, which takes us to Hanumil (3,300 m), a small village of few houses under the mountains next to the river. When we arrive, we sit tired under the shade. I am happy to find a beautiful flat land with green grass and trees, which we see more and more rarely during our days of walking. Soon the horses arrive and we begin to install the stores.
We take advantage of a small channel from the river to clean up. After reaching a old man's cabin, we swallow a cup of Tibetan tea with butter. We had dinner with the guide and the cook and we got into the bag. We hope to be fit and acclimatized.
DAY 7: HANUMIL - SNERTSE
As of today, the road is demanding and the stages are longer. It is the price to pay for being in such an amazing place and seeing those spectacular landscapes. We get up early and start our journey towards our first important step, for which we continue, as in previous days along the Zanskar River. Soon the flat road becomes a long hill. However, the views are magnificent.
I walk alone along the brownish river Zanskar for about 2 hours while on the other side I can observe the road that is progressing. I see a beautiful group of ibex crossing in front of me. These are the first animals I've met since the beginning, except for the few domestic yaks seen the day before. They take their time, allowing me to take out my camera and zoom in to capture the scene. They disappear a few moments later.
We said goodbye to the Zanskar River and after a hard road we reached the summit to the Parfi La Pass (3,960 m). We make a stop to rest and have a snack. I am happy because the ascent of my second pass does not seem too difficult. We meet several groups of trekkers who come down. Above, again, a banner of Buddhist prayer flags of yellow, green, red, white and blue colors welcome me and behind I can admire the magnificent Himalayan chain but also the descent of 500 meters waiting for me.
And we start the descent with a lot of unevenness. Up and down. It's the daily tonic. The descent punishes our legs even more than the climb. In fact, descending into this sandy terrain is far from an easy task. My knees are put to the test. After the zigzagging path we rest deservedly next to river Oma Chu or Zinchen Tokpo and stop there next to the poplars to eat.
It is already noon and I also take the opportunity to take a foot bath in the icy water of the river. I am on the border between Zanskar and Ladakh. Half an hour later, I begin the last climb of the day. Although the climb is shorter, the fatigue of the day being felt, I struggle to advance in this sandy path that for me never stops to climb. Once achieved, we skirt the mountain and the end of today's stage, Snertse, appears before us. We observe the beautiful landscape and the sharp descent through infinite zigzags.
Already in Snertse (3,800 m), the only inhabitant of the village of the only existing house invites us to a yak butter tea. After this first big stage we rested and dined a delicious local meal and enjoying a good Knor soup. The sun goes away soon, lowering temperatures rapidly. And yes, it's my Quechua tent that is planted there at the edge of a river cascading down. The terrain for camping is made of gravel but flat on several levels. We take the opportunity to sleep and regain strength for the next day.
DAY 8: SNERTSE - LINGSHED
After a cold but uneventful night, we leave at 7:40 and go up the stream to the north. When I started I had to cross the stream several times, jumping from one stone to another, a balancing exercise to avoid getting into the water which is not my strong point. From the beginning, it is necessary to climb moderately but continuously, and in this small valley, I have to cross several times on the snow.
The cut mountains gave way to rounder mountains of ocher color but arid and without vegetation. The climb to the Hanuma La crosses a steep gorge following the descent of a small river, with many stretches of snow and ice that we are avoiding. After 5 hours of climbing along this spectacular path we reached the Hanuma La Pass (4,900 m).
At the top, two large chortens are planted by a set of prayer flags. I am gratified by the majestic view, a grandiose panorama of pastel colored mountains. We can see the Zanskar Gorge, the snow-capped peaks of the Ladakh Range, and the bottom of the valley, the village of Lingshed, my final destination for today. Seen from here it seems to me quite a reasonable distance and I feel like I can reach it in an hour or two.
After enjoying this wonderful show while eating my lunch, I begin the zigzag descent of a light foot, but the road is arid and dusty. Below, we stop at a first camp to enjoy a good chai. From here, the village seems close to me but in this region of mountains, the distances are misleading. There is still this endless mountain to climb.
It's hard on the morale because I really thought I was almost there so it will take me more than 2 hours before reaching my goal of the day! In fact, I understand that it was mostly a hard day psychologically because the village of Lingshed taunted me from the top of Hanuma La.
After a very strong meandering descent to reach the base camp of Hanuma La, we started another new ascension. We thought, like the previous time, that destiny would be soon after the ascent, but it was not like that. After a long journey across the valley, we begin to see rice fields and small houses that form Lingshed (4,100 m).
The campsite is next to the monastery, at the other end of the valley and the town. So we take another walk ahead, but as always having amazing landscapes before us. It is with eagerness that I accept the invitation to drink a chai offered by an old Buddhist monk who is standing in front of the monastery. I think he must have pity on me by seeing my discomfited look and my dusty outfit.
He guides me through the maze of the monastery through narrow passages and climbing a ladder to reach his home, a modest room that serves as bedroom, living room and kitchen, with a cat for only companion. I sit on the carpet waiting for my host to prepare the tea. I do not really want to talk but rather to rest and immerse myself in the atmosphere of life of a monastery.
Having recovered a little energy, I get up and greet my host while thanking him for his hospitality. It snowed on summits further to the east, probably the Kang Yatse massif, with several peaks over 6,000 m at 60 km east-southeast. Finally we arrived and after installing the tent we lay down to give a break to our tired legs. After dinner, we take a walk to give us a binge of nature and return to the store to sleep, which has been a very long day.
DAY 9: LINGSHED - SENGGE LA PASS
The campsite is located in the heart of the village, or what seems to be because very close to the monastery, our tents quickly become the center of attraction. Monks, young and old, nuns and villagers come for a walk to observe us. We have time to visit the Lingshed monastery before leaving. Lingshed gompa was founded by the Gelukpa sect.
It is one of the largest monasteries in the region and there we receive some nice monks. One of them taught us from the old prayer books and we prayed with him, without understanding anything, of course. The monastery is a very lively place and I find it beautiful.
Once we have seen the monastery, we face the path towards the first step to Netsuke La Pass (4250 m). Soon we reached easily the stupa and the flags that indicate the top. After a short break we march to the next step, abandoning the views of the valley where Lingshed sits. This second step is the Margun La Pass (4370 m), it is like a second part of the first step but higher.
We start the descent to face the last climb of the day. After a climb with long and steep slopes, we reach the third and last step of the day to the Kiupa La Pass (4,400 m). At this point of trekking, I am perfectly acclimatized. I found my pace and especially for climbs I walk slowly but continuously. The altitude does not bother me anymore.
I am tired by the climb but I do not run out of steam like at the beginning. The mountains are still beautiful. It is impossible to get tired in this game of colors, shade and light. Unlike the climb, the descent is smooth and gradual and soon we reach the base camp of Singe La (4,500 m) where we will set up our camp.
The view of the Zanskar Range and snow-capped peaks over 6000 m above sea level is breathtaking, and there are always fantastic colors. To go down again, we follow a pretty stream and it is towards noon that we set up the camp very close to the stream, in the middle of bushes and shrubs. On one side the jagged brown and ocher mountains remind me of Utah or Arizona but if I turn, the landscape turns into a mountain of gray rocks with various layers of snow. What to say except that it is very beautiful!
I enjoy the afternoon sun and the fact that the stream is for once refreshing. We install the store on that rocky ground, we rest, we entertain ourselves and we eat something hot. We see an incredible view of pastel-colored wavy mountains against a background of blue sky, and a touch of white in the background of the canvas. I had a good time admiring this painting and I had tears in my eyes.
After observing the sunset in that incredible place we dressed in all the clothes we have to spend one of the coolest nights of the trek. We are at 4,400 m.
DAY 10: SINGGE LA - PHOTOSKAR
After a cold night we wake up, and after preparing the backpacks and having breakfast, we take the road to the highest pass of the trek to the Singe La Pass (5,100 m). Once we have overcome the many zigzags of the rocky road we arrived at the long awaited summit of our trip!
We took pictures of the landscape and in the stupa we placed the prayer flag that we had bought in Rangdum for this occasion. In an exciting ritual of joy we place some ribbons to celebrate the moment. After the emotional moment starts the descent, this time gradually to a long level to finally climb the second step.
We take time to arrive at the summit of the Bumitse La Pass (4,450 m). The ascent to the pass is gradual and without difficulty and the view is still spectacular. In the distance we can see the greenery and the village of Photoksar, which is still an hour's walk away. Above we enjoyed the views and after an appetizer we continued the road to Photoskar (4,100 m), a town literally hanging on the rock.
Photoksar is a beautiful village with cultivated fields and at the foot of an immense wall of ocher color. The houses touch almost all, connected by small passages, like very low tunnels. I learned it at my own expense after almost knocking myself out while I was looking for a Chang seller. To recover from my emotions and the pain caused by the lump that just pushed me on the head, the villager offers me a cup of chai and a cup of chang.
People here have different faces, with darker complexion. The children are always charming but rather shy. I pass in front of a probably family meeting. All these people are sitting on the stony ground. They have large aluminum bowls that seem to be filled with their local beer they serve with a large ladle.
Once installed in the camping area we enjoyed the last hours of light. At dusk we took refuge in the tent, since the weather has worsened. With the wind and the cold when the sun is hidden it is uncomfortable to be out in the open. We prepare ourselves to spend again a very cold night and rest for tomorrow's stage.
DAY 11: PHOTOSKAR - PHANJILA
We wake up with a covered sky and a lot of wind and only react with a hot breakfast. We leave this time lined with a hat and gloves towards the mountain pass. Fine snowflakes fall while we climb. The ascent is gradual until reaching the approach of the pass, where the road becomes very steep and strong, luckily shorter than the previous but perhaps the hardest.
I pass next to a white chorten, one of those monuments that usually marks the gateway or exit of the village. The horses took the right path and we took the steepest left path that led us to the Sisir La pass (4,900 m). This climb seemed to me the steepest I've done so far. The path climbed steeply on sandy ground or on the rock. It is on this course that I met the most trekkers.
There is such a variety of landscapes that it is impossible to get tired of the show. We rest at the top watching the snow-capped mountains through the clouds and begin the long descent. The mountains become orange. We take a bridge to cross the river Photang. We cross the valley avoiding the road under construction that will soon connect this remote region, a shame for the trekkers but a great opportunity for the locals.
After a long walk we arrive at Hanupata (3,700 m). Honupatta is undoubtedly the most seductive of the villages visited so far. As we cross the village of Hanupatta, everything reminds me that the trek is drawing to a close and that the return to modern life is imminent. The road under construction is at the edge of the village, where electric poles are emerging.
Beautiful Tibetan style houses are solidly built. Next to a beautiful and huge red prayer wheel is the sign of a medical center. The climate also changes. It's getting hotter and I sweat a lot today. Our path continues, this time through the gorge of a canyon, very long but extraordinary.
After many kilometers of crossing between colorful and perpendicular rocks, we arrive at Phanji La (3,300 m). Once installed the camp we spent time by the river. The sunset over the valley, the river and the orange-cut mountains is the most beautiful view I've had of all the camps.
I take advantage of every image that I would like to burn in my memory forever. None of my photos will be able to reproduce the beauty, the atmosphere, the colors, the grandeur and the majesty of the mountains of Ladakh. We have dinner and go to bed to regain strength for the last stage.
DAY 12: PHANJI LA - LAMAYURU
When we wake up we know that this is the last day in nature far from civilization. We left early on a dusty road, under construction, which goes to Wanla (3,200 m). I am shocked to discover all these campsites next to each other. There are plenty of tents everywhere because this is where the trek begins. For me who made the trip in the opposite direction and especially starting a little before the start of the season, it is a hard return to civilization.
Once there, we visited the Wanla monastery at the top of the village. The monks read a series of Mahakala mantra and punctuate this reading with their drum and cymbals. We continue the trip to Lamayuru through the last step of the trek. To do this, we leave Wanla and begin to climb following the course of a river along a narrow and winding road. We arrive at the Prikiti La Pass (3,850 m).
After stepping down, we continued walking for a year until we found ourselves facing the moon landscape that we had seen from the road on the first day of the jeep, which indicates that we are already close to Lamayuru. And finally, after leaving the mountain behind, we see on our left and above the imposing Lamayuru monastery at 3,500 m. Finally, after 9 days and many miles, we have reached our final destination!
The shops are ready when we arrive, we put on comfortable clothes and after lunch we visit the great monastery and the surroundings of Lamayuru. At dusk I choose a room overlooking the monastery at the guesthouse. I have the pleasure of reconnecting with the luxury of civilization or almost. We sleep, happy for having been able to make the trek, but sad at the same time for having finished it. It is time to return to the Indus Valley.