Journey to Zanskar: India’s remote valley

We saw the “land far far away”, of all the childhood stories and travel tales, when we travelled to the Zanskar valley. The beauty of the Zanskar landscapes changed our definition of beautiful. And in its – in your face – isolation, we learnt a whole lot about ourselves!

How exactly isolated is the Zanskar valley?

These are some quick facts about the location of Zanskar valley. Zanskar is part of the Kargil district in India’s northernmost state Jammu and Kashmir. Kargil is inaccessible by road through winter because of heavy snowing on the treacherous mountain passes that connect Kargil to the rest of India. Padum, the headquarters of Zanskar valley is further 250 km away from Kargil.

The hamlet of Rangdum brings with it some signs of life. These are the Himalayan horses walking on the banks of the Suru river. Randum is the southernmost tip of the Suru valley, the valley that separates Kargil from Zanskar valley, the most remote valley in India.

Even in a SUV, these 250 km take a good 8 hours to traverse (in the good weather of the summer months). A map of Zanskar valley has specific mentions of “end of the road”. Villages beyond this point can only be trekked to by foot (in the summer, completely isolated in the winter).

Tso Moriri the high altitude mountain lake in Ladakh, at a distance of 250 km from Leh Road trip from Leh in Ladakh to Manalai in Himachal Pradesh, India

If the aim is to reach Padum in good light, the journey from Kargil should begin by 5 AM. Hiring a personal vehicle here is the fastest means of getting to Padum, the headquarter of Zanskar valley. We wanted to visit places en route as well, so opted to take the public buses.

Soon after Kargil, the Suru valley starts

Around 40km after Kargil, Sankoo is a stepping stone to head deep in the Suru valley. It is surprisingly green for its altitude, of over 3000 mt, thanks to the Suru river that flows through it. A zig zag road follows this river, crossing several bridges, as seen above, to cross the Suru valley through villages like Sankoo, Panikhar, Tangole and Parkachik, where suddenly, civilisation comes to a halt!

Suru valley separates Kargil from the Zanskar valley. The Suru river flowing through this valley keeps it surprisingly green for its altitude of over 3000 meters. We Little did we know, it was the last bit of green we would be seeing for days!

A zig zag road follows this river. We crossed the river at several places over rickety bridges through villages like Sankoo, Panikhar, Tangole and Parkachik.

Nun, Kun and Suru

The twin peaks of Nun (7135m) and Kun (7087m) are the biggest and the highest attraction in the Suru valley. The contrast of the perennially snow covered Nun and the barren Kun add to the mystic of the place. Suru valley stretches from Kargil right up to the Penzi la after which the Zanskar valley starts. It is the greenest valley of the Greater Himalayas. Every village in the Suru valley takes pride in the view it affords of the Nun and the Kun peaks.

The twin peaks of Nun (7135 m) and Kun (7087 m) are the biggest and the highest attraction in the Suru valley. Every village takes pride in the view it affords of the Nun and the Kun peaks. Nun is perennially covered in snow, while the Kun is barren black. The contrast of their never interchanging identities adds to the mystic of the place.

Our bus reached Parkachik in the evening. We spent a couple of days in the trekker’s cottage of the Jammu and Kashmir tourism department, hiking up to Parkachik la. Two other couples in our cottage were also heading to the Zanskar valley.

How to proceed to Zanskar valley beyond Parkachik, was the real challenge.

The caretaker of the cottage advised us to wait by the road at 8 AM, which is when the vehicles that had left from Kargil would reach Parkachik. We could accommodate ourselves in their empty seats.

Two hours later, our stretched out thumbs hadn’t borne any results. We were still all waiting. The locals told us the time was up and all the vehicles would have passed off by then. Hopes were low, but we didn’t give up (not that we had a choice!). Our optimism was rewarded in the form of two humongous Indian Oil trucks! The six of us managed to fit in the two trucks and finally we were off to Zanskar valley!

A kilometer later, we saw the Parkachik glacier.

Parkachik is the last village in Suru valley. The Parkachik glacier is 1km away from the village of Parkachik. Much of the snow had melted when we saw it in the month of July, but it sill made for an interesting look especially with the mighty Himalayas surrounding it.This picture was taken from a truck in which we travelled from Parkachik to Zanskar.

It was the month of July and much of the snow had melted. It still made for an interesting look especially with the mighty Himalayas surrounding it.

Through the Suru valley, we had noticed a receding number of houses in each passing village. After Parkachik, civilisation had vanished. We now had the Suru river and the massive imposing Greater Himalayas for company in the vast nothingness of our surroundings.

After Parkachik, the last village of Suru Valley civilisation comes to a sudden halt. The river Suru, tributary of Indus gives you company most of the way into Zanskar.

We gradually made ourselves comfortable in the truck. Our drivers were from Jammu. They were delivering diesel at a fuel station in Padum (which we later realised was the only fuel station in the entire Zanskar valley!). They were quite stunned we had actually “chosen” to visit the Zanskar valley. What was there to see in the nange parbat (barren mountains), they asked us.

An hour into our truck ride, it was clear we wouldn’t make it to Padum by nightfall.

The barren mountain faces of the Greater Himalayas in Zanskar  reveal ragged patterns. Stunning landscapes like these are part of the 250 km journey from Kargil to Zanskar. It is one of the most isolated stretches of the Himalayas in India.

The smooth paved road till Panikhar was now just a gravel path. The 12,000 liters of diesel that the trucks were carrying was making us move real slow.

Rangdum is midway between Kargil and Padum, the headquarters of Zanskar valley. Travelers often halt for the night at Rangdum on their way to Zanskar. Some houses operate homestays and guest houses for these travelers.

Post noon we were at Rangdum, the midway point of the Kargil Padum journey.

It is a tiny hamlet of around ten houses, a couple of food stalls (travelers usually halt here for lunch) and a few guest houses (again, for travelers who want to halt for the night). Rangdum, essentially was a definition of “in the middle of nowhere”.

Even the remote Rangdum midway between Padum, headquarters of Zanskar valley and Kargil is now touched by technology.

These telecom towers were a strong paradox to their surroundings. The remote location of Rangdum meant that satellite communication was the only way for the people here of getting in touch with the outside world.

This little hamlet brought with it signs of life. The locals here are mostly shepherds and their flock was enjoying being out in the sun in the summer months.

A tiny calf grazes in the open, something that can only be done in summer in Zanskar valley. Zanskar one of the remotest valleys in India. In the winter months the entire valley of Zanskar is covered in snow. Unlike in the plains, the cattle here have a thick coat of fur for some warmth.

Rangdum is midway on the 250km route from Kargil to Padum, headquarter of the remote Zanskar valley. A convenient halt on this long route, it is a tiny hamlet of ten houses and a couple of food stalls and guesthouses. Its geographic location makes it, essentially, the definition of

The village kids were playing near the village stupa. We wondered what their lives must be like, living in such isolation. From what we saw, it sure seemed like a lot of fun.

They seemed to have cracked the secret of being happy in the middle of absolutely nowhere!

We wondered what their lives must be like, for these kids of Rangdum. Living in such isolation, in the middle of nowhere. From what we saw, it sure seemed like a lot of fun!

There was a sharp nip in the air as we moved towards Penzi la, the solitary mountain pass on the way to Zanskar valley. Marmots scurrying around were the only sign of life now. We could sense that we had actually moved beyond the middle of nowhere!

How did we cross through the Penzi la?

Our truck trudges through Penzi la, the only pass on the only motor-able road that connects Zanskar valley to the rest of India. Read more about Mountain passes we crossed in the Himalayas.

Through a cloud of black smoke, that’s how!

The isolation and beauty of Penzi la (and the entire journey) were a perfect setting for some adrenaline rush! No wonder then, we saw cyclists braving these rough roads. They were cyclists from France, heading to the Zanskar valley to volunteer as teachers in a school they had helped build earlier.

These French cyclists were cycling from Kargil to Padum, a 250km gravel road, in Zanskar valley. In Zanskar, they were going to volunteer as teachers in a school they had helped build earlier.

Penzi la and the Drang Drung glacier

As our trucks trudged up to 4200 m, a board announced that we were at the highest point of Penzi la. We now kept our eyes out for the Drang Drung glacier.This is the source of the Suru river that was keeping us company all day long.

We saw the Drang Drung glacier after crossing the highest point at 4200 meters, of Penzi la, the only mountain pass en route Zanskar. It was an enormous glacier, melting in full flow at the peak of summer. Read more about Mountain passes we crossed in the Himalayas.

Suddenly at a turn, it presented itself! As a splash of white against the rugged browns of the Zanskar mountains. It was an enormous glacier, melting in full flow at this peak of summer.

From atop the Penzi la, the only mountain pass in the 250 km Kargil to Padum journey into Zanskar, this was the closest we got to the Drang Drung glacier.

From atop the Penzi la, this was the closest we got to the Drang Drung glacier. Our truck drivers were kind enough to halt the trucks here. This gave us our only photo of the journey from a stationary vehicle!

The rugged browns of the Greater Himalayas give company after crossing the Penzi la. Soon after Rangdum is Penzi la, the only mountain pass on the way to Zanskar. The water the glacier melt of Drang Drung glacier, the source of the Suru river.

We were now in the Zanskar valley – one of the most remote valleys in India, connected by a single motorable road with the rest of India!

We were delighted and even did a little jig in the truck to celebrate this. By evening, we started to get news of some communal tensions in Padum, making our chances of getting to our destination even more bleak. The drivers decided they would halt here for the day.

Where exactly were we? Till date, we do not know for sure!

All we know was, we spent the night by the river in the lap of the Greater Himalaya mountains. We could see specs of dim lights all the way over the horizon. Thankfully our drivers were well prepared for such occasions. They would always carry a mini kitchen with them. They lent us a stove and a wok to cook our dinner of noodles and oats.

We hadn’t really anticipated being out in the open for any night and weren’t carrying sleeping bags or tents. The drivers were kind enough to let us have a truck all to ourselves.

“Lock the doors from the inside, you’ll be warm and safe”, they told us.

With 12,000 litres of diesel behind us, we made beds out of the truck seats and slept blissfully.

Unavoidable circumstances forced us to halt overnight in the middle of nowhere. We spent the night in one of the trucks. This was the farewell picture we took with our kind drivers the next morning, after we had finally made it to Zanskar.

The next morning, the six of us parted ways with our truck drivers. We couldn’t help wonder if we would ever get a chance to repay them for their hospitality.

We met some locals in the morning who told us we were in fact, quite close to Padum, but it would be unsafe to venture there just yet. We hired a local jeep which took us to Sani, a village 6 km before Padum, where we attended the Sani monastery festival.

Cultivated grass is left to dry to be used as fodder for the cattle in the winter. By the month of August people start preparing themselves for the long and harsh winter that Padum as well as the rest of Zanskar valley faces.

Three days after we had begun our journey in the truck, we were finally in Padum. Though still a distant call from life as we knew it, we were excited by the worldly comforts Padum could provide (a bed and a tiled bathroom!).

The journey to Zanskar valley was a humbling experience. We sensed the power of raw untouched beauty of nature. It left us overwhelmed. We knew it was a special privilege to be where we were!

Tips for traveling to Zanskar valley:

  • Hiring a cab (sumo or a SUV) from Kargil is the fastest and also the most expensive way to travel to Zanskar valley.
  • Public transport to Zanskar valley is sparse. A weekly bus service runs from Leh in Ladakh to Padum in Zanskar. It halts for the night at Kargil. If seats are available (this is an uncertainty), one can travel to Zanskar valley in this bus.
  • In the morning, buses leave from Kargil for Sankoo and Panikhar, villages in the Suru valley. Once a day, a bus leaves for Parkachik. These buses is what we used. This way we could also visit the villages in Suru valley.
  • There are a couple of Sumos in Parkachik, which can be hired to get to Zanskar valley. If not, be prepared to hitchhike.
  • It is also possible to halt at Rangdum. Stay facilities are extremely basic; homestays are the only option (dry compost toilets are used from here onwards further into Zanskar valley).
  • Padum, the headquarters of Zanskar valley is equipped with tourist facilities like hotels, guesthouses and restaurants.

Need help planning your trip to Zanskar?

Tell us your requirement.

Map for the journey from Kargil to Padum in Zanskar valley

These blogs will help you plan your travel to Zanskar valley

zanskar to do not chadar padum discover

Trek to Phuktal monastery, the most remote monastery in Zanskar valley, the most remote valley in India

Monastery festival in Sani, a village 6 k m before Padum, the headquarters of Zanskar valley, the most remote valley in India

Simple life of the people of Sani, a village 6 k m before Padum, the headquarters of Zanskar valley, the most remote valley in India

Tso Moriri the high altitude mountain lake in Ladakh, at a distance of 250 km from Leh

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Sandeepa and Chetan. Married. Indians. Exploring Travel as Lifestyle. Featured by National Geographic, Yahoo. We hope that through our travel stories we inspire others to make their dream into a reality.

Comments

49 thoughts on “Journey to Zanskar: India’s remote valley

  1. aquatarkus

    Hi Sandeepa, I wish go to Zanskar in Sept, I travel alone. I go to Kargill from Srinagar and it is possible that very late evening that I arrived at Kargill to get a car shared and to leave the next morning early to Padum?

    1. Sandeepa Chetan Post author

      Septemeber is the perfect time to be in the high altitude Himalayas. There is no guarantee of getting shared cabs in Kargil immediately. The way it works is – if there’s a cab that’s arrived from Padum and when they get enough passengers – they leave. There is no timetable. So a cab could be just waiting for one passenger and you might get lucky to leave right the next day. Your hotel/guest house person will know about this. (There is also a weekly bus that from Leh to Padum that halts overnight at Kargil, so you could coincide your visit with that day). Also, there’s a lot to explore around Kargil.

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  3. Maria Herant

    just got back from trekking in Ladakh and found your wonderful post-wish I had seen it before I went-amazing experience!

  4. Sachendra Pal

    Hi Sandeepa and Chetan,

    I am fan of your blog. I am planning to visit Zanskar in September on my bullet. I am planning to cover these places,

    Kargil – Zanskar – Leh – Nubra – Pangong – Tso Moriri – Spiti.

    Is it advisable to do this in September? And what is the best way to reach Zanskar, through Kargil or through Leh?

    1. Sandeepa Chetan Post author

      Thanks Sachendra! There is only one way to reach Zanskar – through Kargil. A quick look at the map of the Zanskar and Ladakh regions will make the route clear. Have a good trip!

    2. rajeev ram

      dear sandepa – chetan we 4 friends are travelling this september second on our bikes to suru zanskar. we plan to start from kargil . is it possible to reach padum on the same day ? is it possible to book accommodations at padum in advance ? any contact details ? we plan to stop at Parkachik on our return leg from padum and then head for leh. are there accommodations available at parkachik ? any contact details “

      1. Sandeepa Chetan Post author

        Hello Rajeev, if you start early in the morning from Kargil, you can reach Padum the same day. Sumos reach in half a day, taking one lunch halt at Rangdum. You would probably want to stop at more places along the way, so give yourself enough time. The landscape is spectacular and you don’t want to miss out on that travelling in the dark. There are plenty of stay options in Padum, no need of booking in advance. We had stayed at Mont Blanc, at the far end of the town of Padum. In Parkachik, you have a guest house of the Jammu Kashmir tourism department. Again, no need to book in advance. If you aren’t comfortable with arriving unbooked in Parkachik, you can meet the caretaker on the way to Padum, tell him about your plans. Hope you aren’t planning on just reaching Padum and leaving back, because there is loads to explore in the Zanskar valley. Have a wonderful trip to the Suru and Zanskar valleys.

  5. Danish

    I m travelling to zanskar day after tomorrow from srinagar to zanskar.being a bit confused i want u to guide me with ur knowledge. Is it safe to my own car ( xuv 500). And also Wat should i keep with me and what should i expect from the valley

    1. Sandeepa Chetan Post author

      Hello Danish, great to know of your travel plans. Do make sure the conditions are suitable to travel through Kashmir on your way to Zanskar. We traveled from Srinagar to Kargil in a hired taxi, it was a Tavera. They have equivalent cabs to get to Kargil or further ahead to Leh. On Zoji la however, we also spotted a Maruti Omni. This should give you a fair judgment about your vehicle’s suitability. About wat to expect from Zanskar, the best thing we can say is untouched beauty. For more information on what you can do in Zanskar and en route to the Zanskar valley, have a look at our travel stories from the Zanskar valley.

  6. Emanuela Gawronski

    Hello, I will be in Zanskar for a trekking next august, flying from Italy. I need to keep in touch with my family, can anybody tell me if there will be a cell phone connection and internet there? Thank you,
    Emanuela

    1. spiritualchocolate

      I was just in Padum for 4-1/2 weeks in June. Sporadic Internet through a few Internet cafes in town, none in the hotels. No telephone unless you have a satellite one, and even then, not reliable. The electricity in the valley is all Solar so only a few hours worth at night. Great hotel in Padum is Chamling Kailash — as you drive into the town, it is on the left and the door has little drapes (about 6 inches up and down across it. Go up the stairs on the right when you enter. Tell the owner you were referred by a member of the US medical group from June. There is a restaurant in there, too and the owner and the guys are amazingly wonderful.

      1. Sandeepa Chetan Post author

        Hey Linda, thanks for the latest updates. When we were there, one hotel had wifi but it was extremely expensive. Most shops were still closed after the communal riots that had happened, so there was no internet. Landline phones worked, though.

  7. Himanshu

    hello. we are planning to visit ladakh by end of june. we are planning to take road trip from Manali to Leh. stay put at Leh. and then visit Zanskar Valley and come back to Leh. then take flight back to Delhi. Is it right way of doing it? kindly advise

    1. Sandeepa Chetan Post author

      Hello Himanshu, if you are flying out of Leh, then yes. This is the correct route. However you can not travel to Zanskar valley and return back to Leh in the same day. You will have to stay atleast a day each at Padum and Kargil. Unless you travel to/from Leh in the dark. Then you cna manage with a one night stay in PAdum. (we do not recommend such a rushed visit to Zanskar). As you can see, the journey to the Zanskar valley is spectacular.

  8. muzu malik

    hello to all and a big hello to @sandeep Chetan, nice to see u all and to u mr sandeep for writing abt ur experence in our region i.e ladakh hope this year more people come and enjoy the natural beauty of zanskar region , iam from taisuru which in in between zanskar and kargil region and we wellcome u all in our valley in the comming summer for any kind of infromation please mail me i will ty to help u all, i am a student i stay in delhi ringt nw and waiting for my vacation in july , hope u all enjoy this summer

      1. Val

        Hi,
        My husband and I from the UK, will be travelling by bus from Srinagar – Leh – Manali – Delhi. We have found so much helpful information from your site, to help us plan our 6 week trip.

        We will be arriving into Kargil by bus. Do you have any recommendations of places to stay in Kargil, not too far from the bus stand?

        The next day we will have to bargain for a taxi to take us to Mulbech, Lamayuru and Temisgam.

        Regards

        Val

        1. Sandeepa Chetan Post author

          Hello Val, we are glad our travel stories helped you plan your trip. Ladakh is a dream come true and we wish you an awesome time there. The hotels/guesthouses near the Kargil bus depot are more or less the same an fall under truly budget accommodation. At the far end of the main road are two bigger hotels (can not remember the names though)! We had just walked in to ask if they had rooms available and they had. So guess booking isn’t absolutely necessary.

  9. rindrawan

    Hi Sandeepa,

    Do you know how much is the rate for shared taxi/vehicle per pax from Kargil to Padum ?

    Thanks,

    Rio

  10. Komathy Ganesan-Mogan

    Hi guys! I am KOMATHY from Kuala Lumpur. It’s a dream to go to Ladakh, Leh and of course Zanskar! What would be the best entry point into Zanskar from Delhi? We can fly into Delhi or Amritsar from Kuala Lumpur. Also I tend to get some motion sickness – any tips for that? I admire you both and your addiction to travel and adventure. If you are ever in Kuala Lumpur, please do contact me. Cheers.

    1. Dr. Hiren Yagnik

      Dear Komathy Ganesan-Mogan,
      Best entry point to Zanskar (and entire Ladakh region for that matter) is Leh, which is accessible by air throughout the year but you can travel into interiors of Ladakh only during late summer months between July to September.
      Acclimatization is the best remedy for your motion sickness. Stay in Leh and explore surroundings of this beautiful city for first 2-3 days and then only move forward towards interiors.
      Being a Doctor, I would recommend that medicines also help fighting motion sickness. Try taking Metoclopramide 10 mg tablet, half an hour before starting journey. Drink adequate quantity of water. Practice Pranayama regularly before before and during your journey.
      Once in Zanskar, one option is to exit from Kargil-Srinagar route so, you can visit beautiful Kashmir valley as well.
      Stay fit. Enjoy your trip.

    2. muzu malik

      hey hello
      nice to see people like u looking to travel in our region , actually i am from kargil and that af suru region which comes in between kargil and padum, i stay in delhi for study purpose and if u dont mind i can help u showing route to our region and about the places which u can visit in our region . Iam a student at delhi u can mail me at muzu113@gmail.com

  11. jyothi s

    You guys made it look very easy. Me and my husband planning Zanskar in July’16. Can we drive our little maruti swift till Padum? If not can we hire a taxi from any places between kargil and padum. Hiring a cab from kargil is the last option. Which one do you prefer? Of course would love to get hitchhiked!

    1. Sandeepa Chetan Post author

      If your Maruti Swift is in Kargil, then we assume you have either crossed the Zoji la or the Leh Manali route. In that case, Penzi la, the pass on the way to Zanskar valley would be a piece of cake. The only problem would be the lack of tarred roads after Parkachik, almost upto Padum. But we saw a MAruti Omni drive through this route (it was in fact, an ambulance from Padum!). Self driving will give you a chance to stop through all the wonderful places in Suru valley as well. Hitchhiking is great because the people are really friendly, but it can be a time consuming experience 🙂 Wish you an awesome trip to Zanskar!

  12. Preeti

    Hi,
    I had gone trekking with YHAI from Parkachik to Pannikar to Rangdum in 1988. in Parkachik, We had stayed in tents right next to a gushing river, sound of which kept us awake all night. Next day we went sliding over the snow bridge which was naturally formed over the same river. Unfortunately, I don’t have any photos of that place and don’t remember the name of that river (Suru ?). Did you see a place similar to what I am describing ?

    1. Sandeepa Chetan Post author

      Hey Preeti, the river would most likely be the Suru river. The tents must have been on the open land where the tourism board’s guest house now is. Not sure about the snow bridge, in fact we saw very little snow in Zanskar. But it could be near the Parkachik glacier; we didn’t walk up to it, just saw it from the truck we were traveling in. It must have been such an amazing trek! Wonder if YHAI still conducts this one.

  13. sanober

    I want to go to zanskar valley, my biggest dream… But I think Only a group of people can go there. Can you let me know if any group is going to zanskar valley so that I could come with my husband. Please notify me of any trip to North

    1. Sandeepa Chetan Post author

      Hello Sanober, you do not need a group to travel to Zanskar, you can easily go there on your own. You can get shared taxis from Kargil to Padum. There are many guest houses in Padum, you do not need to pre book. Happy travels!

      1. Sandeepa Chetan Post author

        Hello Rohit, we are hoping to join our friend on his tour to remote parts of Ladakh and Zanskar this summer, July 2016. We can assure some good travel company!

  14. Murli Dhar Jha

    wonderful representations and clarity for visitors.Thanks a lot having given the opportunity to road less traveled in picturesque land .kudos to you and those who traveled with you in such extreme conditions

  15. Rina

    Awesome blog.. Nun, Kun and Suru are so amazing place to visit once in life… really its great experience for every one that make you something memorable.

  16. Kim

    Again, another excellent account of your journey and experiences, Sandeep and Chetan. I look forward to reading every one of them and your pictures make me so jealous (in a nice way), both for their quality and for you having seen all that spectacular scenery ‘in the flesh’, so to speak. Merry Christmas and a Happy 2015 to you both.

    1. Sandeepa Chetan Post author

      Thank you so much, once again, Kim! This reply is a bit too delayed, better late than never 🙂 Looking back at the travels, sometimes even we find it unbelievable that we have actually been there (hint: need to travel again!). Merry Christmas to you!