Guest travel writer Sophie Ibbotson and Max Lovell-Hoare are currently researching the Bradt Guide to Kashmir, which involves everything from trekking to remote Himalayan caves, to playing football with mini-monks in Ladakh’s Tibetan monasteries. This week’s instalment sees them trekking the rough terrain of Zanksar and visiting a serene Buddhist Monastery set high in the cliffs…
Outside of major cities it is rare that you can walk somewhere as fast as you can drive, but such is the case with Zanskar, a hidden, Himalayan valley with all the attractions (but scarcely any of the tourists) of Ladakh. So remote is the valley, indeed, that it is said only those with a pure heart can reach it.
Zanskar lies in the central part of Jammu & Kashmir state (J&K) in northern India. There is one road in from Kargil in the north – a relatively recent addition to the valley’s infrastructure . Even that is open only in the summer months and it reaches just as far as the village of Padum. For much of the year Zanskar is cut off almost completely from the outside world. The only access is via the challenging Chaddar Winter trek along the frozen Zanskar River.
The foreigners who do come this far typically route via Leh or Srinagar. In both cases it is a 1-2 day drive to Kargil, where the Zanskar road begins. It is a further 14 hours (best split over two days) first into the Suru Valley and then to Zanskar itself. If you can put to one side the incessant noise caused by bouncing along tracks surfaced with little more than crushed rock, the twin peaks of Nun and Kun offer promise of the beauty that is to come.
The alternative, from the Leh side, is to drive as far as the Buddhist monastery at Lamayuru and then to trek on foot for two days west through the mountains, far from habitation. Though you need a guide and to be self-sufficient (there are no guesthouses or tea stops en route), the way is not overly difficult. It is rich in local flora and fauna- the Dalai Lama’s physician comes here each year to collect medicinal herbs!
Padum is the largest village in the valley and the start or end point for numerous treks. It’s a largely seasonal settlement, swelling in the summer months with guesthouse keepers, guides and drivers servicing the few dozen tourists in the area at any one time. Little is available to buy or rent locally, so you need to bring all your equipment and provisions with you. We packed everything into our Traveller 80 rucksacks, then zipped off the day packs, leaving the main bag (and most of the weight) with the porters.
The shortest worthwhile day trek in Zanskar is that from Padum to Karsha. The walk across the plain is little more than two hours in each direction. As Karsha’s Gompa (Buddhist Monastery) is built high into the cliff it’s a visual focal point for the area.
Unlike in Ladakh where the constant stream of tourists distract the monks from their work, causing irritation; here you are a novelty. The chief lama is welcoming of the occasional visitors. Providing you remain quiet he is more than happy for you sit in the temple throughout prayers or to join him and his colleagues for a simple lunch. Lunch is served sat on the floor of the monastery courtyard whilst the neophytes (trainee monks), some as young as six, hare about, briefly released from their studies.
At the opposite end of the spectrum, Zanskar offers a number of physically challenging and scarcely (if ever) trekked routes. In the Ibex Hotel we met Stefan, a Swiss mountaineer who has been coming here for more than 25 years. Armed with Soviet military maps (not commercially available but preserved in a few library collections) and a GPS, he has climbed virtually every possible route in the valley, including those unknown to local guides. Monks walking to the remotest gompas occasionally show him the way across the high-altitude passes. More often than not though it is a voyage of complete discovery, a thrilling journey that enables him to walk five days or more without setting sight on another human.
At this level Zanskar demands not just a pure heart, but strong legs and a clear mind too.