Get set for a photographic journey to the Zanskar Valley, Ladakh, India.
Setting off with the Zanskar Valley as our first destination
Six travel companions from NZ and the USA, along with our Indian travel friend Suresh see Suresh’s website here along with our driver and local guide set off towards the Zanskar Valley for six days of travel and exploration. This route takes us alongside, at least part of, the famed Indus River which originates in the Tibetan plateau near Mt Kailash and greets the ocean in the Arabian Sea at Karachi (Pakistan) having travelled 3,610km. We have two overnight stops planned before we drive up the Zanskar Valley and this way we can enjoy the amazing landscapes, monasteries and village life that is set to fascinate our quest for cultural experience. The long drive up the Zanskar Valley on a narrow rough road will take us all day; however this will allow us to enjoy the scenery and surroundings at slow speed, stopping for lunch and tea in ancient Ladaki villages. We stop at the confluence of the Zanskar and Indus rivers and longingly look up the Zanskar river where later, way in beyond these mountains, we will meet it again. Our local travel guide tells us that in winter the river freezes over and becomes the quickest route to the Zanskar valley – no road goes that far via the river valley route. Travellers do sometimes come in winter to experience the frozen river, but due to the weather conditions this is a difficult trip and not recommended. The confluence is also an area for the sport of white-water rafting and trekking – off the beaten track.
Monument to the founder of Sikhism
We make a stop at Pathar Sahib Gurudwara – the monument to the Sikh Guru Nanak Dev who was a great traveller and friend to the Buddhists. Many soldiers and civilians visit here daily and we are able to see the famous stone impression before sitting to witness one of the priests chanting and blessing a new framed photo that he places by an altar. An important Sikh pilgrimage area built at 12,000ft in 1517, the stone impression has an interesting story and history and was discovered during road construction in the late 1970s Read more here
Alchi village and monastery complex
Driving on, we take a detour across the Indus river where the bridge is heavily adorned with prayer flags. Down the road, we visit Alchi monastery. This old town and monastic complex of gompas and buildings, designed and built in the traditional local Ladakhi style, date back to the 10-11th century. They hold some unique statues, old wall paintings maintaining an artistic and spiritual detail that is both Buddhist and Hindu in style. The wood carvings are said to be done in a baroque style and, both these and the paintings, are some of the oldest in Ladakh.
The biggest surprise in Alchi was the exceptional food and coffee at the ‘Alchi Kitchen’ owned by local woman Nilza Wangmo, runner-up in the Ladakh Entrepreneur awards mid-2017. Nilza sat and talked with us for some time about the local history. We enjoyed our local apricot juice, coffee and speciality dish of apricot and chocolate momos. You can get more of a taste for Alchi Kitchen on TripAdvisor Read more here, Facebook, Instagram and twitter. Nilza is a great example of how Alchi may seem a remote place but one that is readily connected to the world. She employs local Alchi women in the open kitchen that offers both great food and Ladakhi cooking lessons. Nilza tells us she is Buddhist and shows us her impressive collection of statues in her personal meditation room in her house nearby.
Ule: Eco-village and the deep gorges beyond
We stop overnight at Ule eco-resort and fruit orchard surrounded by mountains eroded by harsh weather and time. The Indus river flows far below on its way to Kargil where it will turn south and head towards the ocean. Beautiful and peaceful I enjoy a traditional ayurvedic massage with two women massaging at the same time followed by ‘Shirodhara’ (warm oil running onto my forehead). Sublime!
Moonland and Lamayuru
Leaving the banks of the Indus and travelling through deep gorges, with sheer rock walls creating immense beauty, we pass by the spellbinding landscape of ‘Moonland’. This ‘broken mud-cliff’ like landscape, which is said to closely resemble the moon, rises out of the deep gorge to meet the vast expanse of deep blue sky. Lamayuru monastery is just around the corner and is enclosed in the vast ‘moonscape’. Lamayuru gompa (meditation hall), brightly coloured and decorated in the traditional Tibetan style, sits alongside a cave where in ancient times great meditators such as Naropa meditated. The cave and gompa hold a special energy for visitors. We meditate for a while and enjoy the very old collection of stupas alongside where traditionally dressed older ladies and men sit with their prayer wheels and malas, reciting mantras. They readily accept money as a thank-you for allowing us to take their photos. Their smiles tell a thousand stories that spoken language can never guess at. The landscape changes again as we rise up the Fotu La Pass – 4,108m (13,478ft) with its twists and turns and convoys of army trucks on this highest point on the Leh-Srinagar road.
Namika-La pass and Mulbekh
Along with more army convoys, we zig-zag over the Namika-La pass 3,720m (12,139ft) before stopping at Mulbekh 3,304m (10,839ft) where we view the 9m high standing statue of the Maitreya Buddha (Buddha to come) carved into the rock. The statue is said to date either from the early 1st or 2nd centuries, the time of the Kushan Empire or as late as the 8th century (dated by modern scholars). This monolithic sculpture is impressive in its roadside, easily accessible location on the Leh – Kargil highway. Adjoining, is a small monastery which houses many great wall paintings and statues and overlooks the now main road which used to be an ancient trade route.
Kargil and beautiful countryside that leads us therE
We drive on through the beautiful mountains and valleys enjoying the sights of the local villages and the richly fertile farmland harvested in preparation for winter, and the local Ladaki houses, laden with drying grass to feed the stock over the cold harsh winter. We overnight in Kargil, a small city nestled in the Himalayas and sitting on the Indo-Pakistan ‘Line of Control’. It has an interesting chequered history of rule dating back centuries prior to the partition in 1947 and the war that separated the nation.
Driving the Zanskar Valley
In the early morning, we drive alongside the Suru River which is a powerful tributary into the Indus River. This very green fertile valley, which provides two crops per year, stretches for a long way until we start to climb above the greenery at 3,000m (9,843ft) as we head south to Rangdum where the vistas are more stark and craggy and the Nun-Kun mountains and glaciers provide the canvas we have been waiting to see.
Enjoying the high mountain scenery we drive towards the gateway to the Stod Valley in the Zanskar and as we cross the Penzi-La pass 4,401m (14,436ft) we ogle the breathtaking beauty of the mountain peaks and amazing glacial formations that hang high between the blue/black peaks or flow right down to the river valleys below. The most spectacular glacier is the Drang Drung with an average elevation of 4,780m (15,680ft) on the eastern side of the Penzi-La, it fills the wide valley which curves and flows about 23km right down into the Stod Valley, the Stod River, into the Zanskar river and, finally, into the Indus River.
The road is rocky, rough, and slow going, giving us time to enjoy the stunning vistas presented at every turn. The day is long and we stop for tea at quaint roadside stalls with fields enclosed in rock walls stacked neatly to keep the stock from wandering. Nomad camps fascinate our imaginations as we ponder life in this harsh landscape knowing that this is not your usual tourist destination and that we must be as much a fascination for them as they are to us.
There is not a lot of wildlife in this barren land, however along the way we encounter the cows, sheep, goats and water buffalo of the nomads. Marmots, little golden furry creatures of the squirrel family, are periodically seen nibbling on the grass among the rocks where they live. They have been captured by both our imagination and cameras. Bigger than their European counterparts they are about the size of a small dog.
Reaching Padum – our farthest destination on this trip
250km along this rocky road from Kargil we reach Padum 3,669m (12,037ft) at the centre of, but deep in, the tri-armed Zanskar Valley. A small 8th century palace is the centre-piece for the old town and Padum functions as the administrative centre of this region. Along with Zangla, these are the two main towns in the Zanskar Kingdom. Surrounded by high mountains, wide and sometimes deep valleys, farmland and farm houses, it is the centre for tourism, trekking, horse riding, skiing, mountain biking and exploration. From here you can travel in any of the three directions– including to the end of the road at Zangla. (The main photo for this story looks from Zangla fort up the valley beyond the roads end).
As we did, you can explore the fort at Zangla with its colourful history and small but amazingly calm meditation room, ancient buildings, and crumbling chortons (stupas). Zangla Fort was built by a Tibetan King who came to Zangla for his sister’s wedding. Loving the place, he stayed, married a local woman and settled in this valley. They had three children, one of whom was a Buddhist Lama, Nyima Oth Rinpoche (Oth meaning light – our guide tells us) whose blessing we could feel as we meditated in this gompa where very old thankas (Buddhist paintings) line the walls and a statue of him sits at the front alongside a Buddha statue and a Chenrezig statue. Ancestors still live in the village and are the caretakers of the Fort; however, a group of Hungarians have adopted the project of palace restoration.
Closed for travel by road for much of the year, due to deep snow, Padum remains cut off from the rest of the world at this time; however, a tunnel and road are being built from Keylong (near the Rohtang pass and Manali) in Himachal Pradesh. This will make Padum and this area of the Zanskar more accessible. Thus, it is to be expected that tourism to the area will grow taking the remoteness out of the equation. No doubt as a consequence the culture will change forever.
The return journey begins
We visit three monasteries: Stongde, perched atop a hill about 18km from Padum, and which provides views both up and down the Zangla Valley, was founded in 1052 by one of the old Buddhist Masters. We are shown around by one of the monks and enjoy viewing some of the nine meditation halls (gompas) with their very old statues and paintings. There is said to be about 60 monks living at Stongde.
Karsha, built in the 11th century, clings steeply to the side of a hill, is situated opposite Padum, and looks like it has melded into the hillside. Its main gompa was re-built in 2009 and demolition of the old one revealed the well-preserved mummified body of its founder which is now on display in the new main gompa and provides for fascinating viewing in his final resting place which is a beautiful and peaceful stupa. Up to 100 monks still live and practice here at Karsha and as we pass a school room for the young monks we could hear the voices of the teacher and children.
About 6km from Padum on the main road back down the Zanskar plain is the Sani monastery, unusually built on the flat and not on a hill-top with its 2nd century stupa (the oldest in Ladakh – from the times of the Kushan emperor) and the old, but by no means less than, cremation grounds and stupa nearby. The meditation hall houses very old statues and a room off the main gompa holds an amazing statue and a library of literature dating from these ancient times. Famous yogis are said to have lived and meditated here such as Padmasambhava and Naropa (11th C) and nearby caves are still used for meditation today.
The return journey to Leh
On our return journey, we stop to watch and photograph some nomads putting adult and baby yaks into a jeep parked sideways across the road. There is a bit of a flurry when the biggest yak tries to jump out over the side. The mountain views as the sun goes down are stunning and we take a lot of photos of the high glaciers and peaks revealed as the cloud is blown away and the sun shines deep pink and red as it slides behind the solid rock walls. We stay overnight in tents at Rangdum camp. It is very cold and good sleep evades us. The following morning we visit the gompa on the hill above the camp and enjoy its varied and interesting old statues. At some monasteries we could take photos of the statues and paintings but at others no photos are allowed.
We return to Leh via the same route enjoying the better roads, high passes and places we had seen along our outward journey. Once back in Leh, we spend an overnight in our now warm and familiar hotel the Grand Himalaya See link to gallery below the Leh Palace. The warmth of the sun has also warmed our enthusiasm for the next leg(s) of our four-pronged journey to the remote areas we can drive to, without trekking, the high mountain passes and remote valleys of this fascinating and diverse part of India.