It seemed that every stunning photograph or video I happened to see in Leh in the windows of travel agencies or on the screen inside the Tourist Information Office, belonged to a place called Zanskar. So it was a place that became etched into my brain, and I knew I must get there somehow.
My quest for information on this place called Zanskar was an interesting one. I asked travel agencies, “Oh, Zanskar, you want to go there? … What about Pangong Lake or something like that instead?”. I asked the Tourist Information Office, “Um, Zanskar, we don’t know when the bus goes there, maybe once a week, it depends.” I asked locals in Leh, “I’ve never been there! You know, I’ve lived in Leh all my life and never been to Zanskar.” Okay, I think it’s going to be an adventure.
While I was trekking in Markha Valley I heard that one of the guides was originally from there, so I tracked him down one evening and said, “Please tell me about Zanskar.” His enthusiasm and passion when talking about this place, only made me realise that I really had to get there somehow. I just had to be persistent.
A walk down to the J&K government bus station in Leh revealed that yes, in fact there was a bus to Zanskar, hurray! But it only left once a week on Mondays and took two days with a night’s stop in Kargil. Oh, and it left Leh at 5am.
It was only Wednesday when I found this out, so I killed time in Leh for the next five days, mostly sitting in cafes. On the Sunday, I was down at the bus station at 9.10am, as tickets were released at 9am, and this is India, right, so I went on ‘India time’. But somehow I still only managed to get one of the last seats on the bus, in the middle, towards the back, with so many people throwing money at the ticket officer who had to write everything down manually. Great. Still, I was excited, I was finally going to Zanskar.
The bus journey
The bus left at 5.15am. In the complete darkness and in my still sleepy state, I had to laugh at the amount and types of luggage that were being stacked up in a pile in the back of the bus. There was no luggage compartment so the entire back section of the vehicle had piles of duffle bags, backpacks, sacks of rice, plastic buckets, wooden tables, a bicycle; basically anything you could think of was in the back of the bus, but no living animals unfortunately.
The first day was relatively painless, as it was just eight hours to Kargil on a windy but sealed road. We arrived at 1.30pm and were told to be back at the same place for pickup the next morning at 4am. Excuse me, what time? I found a hotel that was only 50m from where the bus stop was and for 700 rupees (AUD$14) I got a pretty nice room with a bathroom. Kargil was nothing special, a dusty town close to the border of Pakistan that is simply a common stopover on the way to other places, like Zanskar or more likely, Srinagar.
The next morning I was up at 3.30am and on the bus by 3.55am. Just two hours down the road, there was the first police checkpoint of the journey. Not long after that, the nice sealed road ended and my SIM suddenly stopped working. Now, the real adventure begins.
The bus trundled at perhaps 20-30km/h for the subsequent hours over the ridiculously rocky, dusty and bumpy road. We crossed small waterfalls and streams and drove over what seemed like huge boulders, it was a trip that no right-minded person would take in an old metal shell of a bus. Still, it somehow managed to continue, with bags and pillows and God knows what else falling around us from the bag racks above our heads.
We stopped for breakfast in a tiny tea stall and then lunch at the only sort-of town on the 230km long journey, Rangdum, at exactly the half way point. After a plate of rice and dahl washed down with a cup of chai, I was ready to continue to Padum.
The scenery was truly spectacular, with the wide, green valley below us, Zanskar river split into small veins along the bottom and snow capped mountains stretching into the sky above. There were yaks, glaciers and colourful wild flowers; it was a landscape straight out of a traveller’s fairytale. Just a pity I didn’t have a window seat!
We rolled into Padum, the main town in Zanskar, in a cloud of dust and I sat to wait as the chaotic shuffle began as everyone tried to get off with whatever cargo they had thrown in the back. It was 7.30pm, and all I wanted was a bed. When I found one, I slept for the next 10 hours straight.
Padum town is described as an “anticlimax” by Lonely Planet and I couldn’t come up with a more accurate description if I tried. It’s a one-street town, with a handful of restaurants, shops, market stalls and guesthouses. It’s dusty and rugged and not much to look at. Good thing that it’s situated at the intersection of three valleys, and the snow capped mountains and monasteries dotting the slopes around it, all make up for the town’s average appearance.
There’s no phone reception or internet in town. The only connection to the outside world was at two Internet cafes (yes, they still exist in Zanskar) where there’s satellite Wi-Fi you can connect to for 5 rupees (AUD10c) per minute. Oh, and it’ll take 5 minutes to load an email and you’ll be lucky if Instagram loads at all.
I basically lived on rice the entire time, as the options were pretty limited, but I couldn’t complain because a meal of unlimited dahl, vegetables and rice cost 80 rupees or AUD$1.50.
Zangla and Stongde
I wanted to visit two particular villages and monasteries down the valley where the famous Chadar Trek comes through from Leh. The official rate for a driver to take you there and back was running around 3000 rupees +, which I wasn’t willing to pay. I met a young local guy who had a new travel agency, running for just two years, and he said he would take me in his own car for a full day trip for 2000 rupees (AUD$40). Apparently, being Australian (a very rare sight in North India) and a solo female does come with benefits.
It was around a six hour day. We first went to Zangla. The road out there is still under construction and will be part of the Leh-Padum road that is currently being built and which will likely take many years yet. The village of Zangla is home to a small nunnery and 17th century ruins of an old hilltop palace.
I visited the nunnery first where the beautiful nuns were quick to offer me chai, biscuits and momos. I sat and had some tea with them before visiting the small school they have which is popular for international volunteers to come and teach at for a while.
I then walked up to the palace ruins, that have been recently restored. However, you can’t go inside the building and can only gaze at the ruins and imagine how magnificent it was in the 17th century. You can easily see why a palace and fortress would be built in such a place, as the 360 degree view was beautiful and would have offered significant strategic importance.
On our return from Zangla, we stopped at Stongde, the second largest and the oldest monastery in Zanskar, perched on top of a hill looking back towards Padum. On the steep drive up to the sprawling complex, the car was overheating and we had to wait for the engine to cool for a while. We finally made it to the top of the hill and by just walking up the entrance stairs of the monastery, I could see that the view was truly spectacular. The snow capped mountains of the valley were imposing, and the arid landscape of the valley floor with the patches of green farms offered a stark contrast.
I entered into the monastery’s main courtyard to find the head lamas were all seated for their lunch. I instantly wanted to retreat, however, they beckoned me over and told me to sit with them. They passed me a bowl of thukpa soup and butter tea, traditional Tibetan cuisine. I can’t stomach the butter tea but to be polite I drank as much as I could.
One of the monks offered to show me around the temples and unlocked the doors for me. They were very interested to know where I was from and how I liked Zanskar, and I left thinking that it was probably the most welcoming experience I’d ever had at a monastery.
By the time I got back to Padum, I was very happy, having had such a great day, and I was looking forward to exploring further.
Phuktal monastery trek
Perhaps Zanskar’s biggest attraction, Phuktal Monastery, is breathtaking. It’s an ancient monastery complex built inside an important meditation cave and is one of the few monasteries remaining in the region that is still accessible only by hiking in (although that is all changing).
The original trek used to start in Ichar, where the end of the motorable used to be. However, now the road has been continued all the way to Cha village. Considering I was on my own though, I decided to still opt to start in Ichar to make the taxi ride to the start cheaper. I was also keen to get my legs moving, after sitting in Leh and on buses since finishing the Markha Valley trek weeks before.
I was dropped at the bridge in Ichar and began walking from there. There is the option to either take the motorable road or the skinny goat track on the right side the valley. I decided to take the motorable road as I wasn’t sure how safe the trail was on the other side and from what I saw, it had been riddled with landslides a bit.
I usually prefer to steer clear of walking on roads, however, it was relatively quiet and only a few vehicles passed me, a couple even stopped to offer me a lift. I had originally thought I might stop in Amnu for the night, but upon arriving so early there I decided to keep going all the way to Cha.
It was 20km in total from where I’d been dropped to reach Cha, and I did it in 4.5 hours as it wasn’t necessarily difficult, just an undulating road.
The road seemingly curled around Cha village and I thought, perhaps I had even passed it by. However, I arrived at a small tea tent where a young boy was happy to take me to his family’s house to stay for the night. The home cooked food was delicious and organically grown in their garden. I read for most of the evening with the view of the mountains out the window.
The next morning I left just before 9am for Phuktal. The road ended and a skinny trail began through the valley towards the monastery. It was an incredibly beautiful stretch of trail, with interesting rock formations and the snow capped Himalayas in the far distance. The trail was a bit more challenging, but I made it to Phuktal in two hours.
The monastery emerged from inside the rock cave almost blending into its surroundings; it truly was spectacular, almost on par with the Tigers Nest in Bhutan. I walked straight up to the monastery to explore it. The young monks were all outside painting stupas, although most of the white paint seemed to be on them rather than the stupas themselves. I heard the horn being blown to signal lunch and they all made a run for the monastery steps. I explored the complex whilst the monks ate and then one of them took me around to show me the prayer rooms.
That night I stayed at the monastery guesthouse, with a surprising amount of other trekking groups. I was up at 6am and went again to the monastery for morning prayers. However, the monks were all sitting having breakfast rather than performing puja and so I just sat with them in the kitchen, letting the young kids play with my camera.
I left at 9.30am and got back to Cha in two hours, although the way back was much more difficult as it was more uphill. I had not arranged any way of getting back to Padum, but considering there were plenty of trekking groups I wasn’t worried. A Japanese guy had just arrived back from Phuktal as well and he was happy to share his ride with me. The ride back took about three hours.
Getting back to Leh
When I arrived back in Padum after the trek, I immediately went in search of information about the bus returning to Leh. There is a tea shop, next to a fruit vendor, opposite the upstairs Changthang Tibetan restaurant, where supposedly a man sits and manages the tickets. However, for a week straight he hadn’t been there, apparently he had urgent family matters to attend to. So on Tuesday evening, I waited for the bus to pull in from Leh and approached the same friendly driver I’d had on the trip the week before.
I asked him when he would go back to Leh, assuming it would most likely be Thursday. However, he smiled and said, “Friday or Saturday, not sure”. With that, I was a little deflated, I was looking forward to getting back to Leh and the prospect of waiting around in Padum a few more days was far from thrilling.
On my way back through town, however, I bumped into my Canadian friend that I’d met on the trek to Phuktal and he kindly offered to take me with them the next day. I would have to be in the back of the car with the luggage, but either way it was much better and he refused to accept any money except for a tip for the driver.
So the next day we left at 6.30am for Kargil and the view was much nicer as I had a window seat and could take some photos as we drove. In Kargil, I had to stay in the same hotel that they had prearranged on their tour and when I saw the chandeliers and nice staircase and uniformed doormen, I knew I would be in for a shock. Of course, the cost was extremely high and I had to have a word with the manager to say that he either gave me a much cheaper price or I would sleep on the floor in reception for nothing. I somehow managed to get a better price and even got all my food thrown in for nothing, although I think the guy at the desk in the morning misunderstood me as having lost all my money… but I went along with it anyway.
On the way back to Leh from Kargil, we stopped at Alchi Monastery and Mulbekh Monastery, places I wouldn’t have seen otherwise and well worth the stop. I was so excited to get back to my guesthouse in Leh though, it was like returning home.
What an adventure!
Where I stayed
I initially stayed at Mont Blanc Guesthouse in Padum, long favoured by backpackers and recommended by Lonely Planet. It’s by far the cheapest in town for 600 rupees (AUD$12) per night per room. However, after one night I was bitten by bed bugs and was swiftly out of there the next morning.
Luckily, Mumtaz, from Zanskar Adventure Point, who took me around the Zangla and Stongde villages, knew of a nice guesthouse called Khamfain run by his family friends/members (you never know sometimes). It was relatively new and in a lovely couples large home. They have three rooms downstairs and three upstairs, all exceptionally large and some with their own bathroom. I really enjoyed my stay there and it was very comfortable. I paid 700 rupees, although apparently they usually ask for more. It’s just behind the Jama Masjid (main mosque) about 1.5km out of town.
On the Phuktal trek, the Cha homestay charged 800 rupees (AUD$16) for a bed and three meals and the Phuktal guesthouse charged 1000 rupees (AUD$20), for a very old and basic room and three meals.
In Kargil, I stayed at Hotel Rangyul, which was very nice with friendly staff and free WiFi. They also had a restaurant. It was a bit far from the main bazaar in town but it was just 50m from where the bus to Padum dropped and picked up from so it was convenient for the early departure. I paid 700 rupees (AUD$14) for a private room with a bathroom (their prices online are much higher, but negotiable).
How I got around
It’s quite difficult to see everything around Zanskar without your own transport as local buses are nearly non-existent and unreliable. Local taxis tend to congregate around the central intersection in town but I found dealing with Mumtaz from Zanskar Adventure Point very easy and he was willing to negotiate the ‘official prices’ set by the government because I was on my own.
His office is relatively new and is situated across from the J&K ATM (the only ATM in town, which doesn’t really work and only allowed a 2000 rupee ($40) withdrawal at a time when I was there!).
His number is 9469552632 (although be aware that only BSNL SIM will work in Zanskar).