Things to do in Zanskar – not only Chadar and Padum

Zanskar is a valley in the Himalayas. Travel to Zanskar is NOT “doing” the Chadar trek. An itinerary for travel to Zanskar is not

  • Day 1: Reach Padum.
  • Night at Padum
  • Day 2: Leave Padum. Night at Kargil.

Why travel 250 km from Kargil to Padum, through a back-breaking journey – there is no comfortable way to get to Zanskar – only to return back in less than 24 hours? (Unless of course, you have contacts with the Dalai lama and can use the helipad in Padum – yes, there is a helipad in Zanskar!)

Landscapes en route Zanskar

Zanskar, as remote and unheard and isolated as it is, is a huge valley. The sparse population means it is best suited for exploration, for getting away from it all, for becoming one with nature (and all of those “deep travel notions”).

So what is it that can be done in Zanskar? What “more” does it have to offer? Allow us to present a list of “6 things to do in Zanskar” (that are not the Chadar trek or reach Padum and return).

1: Attend the monastery festivals in Zanskar

These are not targeted for the tourists (because there aren’t very many tourists in the first place!)
The festival itself – the decked up monastery, masked dances by the lamas, tranced devotional music – is an extravaganza.

This is the inaugural dance of the Sani festival. Known as Bapa, it is a celebratory dance, performed after killing the enemy. These masked dances are the most awaited events of the Sani festival.

Morning prayers at Sani Monastery in Zanskar, India

But beyond these obvious eye-catching and entertaining events, the monastery festivals in Zanskar give a peek into the life of the people of Zanskar. These monastery festivals are an important event in their social calendars. People from all over Zanskar visit these monasteries on their festival days.

Sani Festival, Zanskar valley, India

The monastery festivals are perfect opportunity to observe this social camaraderie of the people of Zanskar.

Read “Colourful monastery festivals in Ladakh and Zanskar”

2: Discover the simplicity of the local life in Zanskar

Except for Padum, there aren’t many guest houses or tourist facilities deeper into the Zanskar valley. Which only means one thing – you have to live with the locals in their homes. We lived in two such homes in Zanskar – one in Sani with a shepherd’s family. The other time was in an accessible-only-by-foot village of Cha.

Houses made with flat stones lined one above the other and “cemented” and painted with a mixture of mud, straw and dung are a typical architectural style of the Zanskar and Ladakh regions.

Early morning in Cha en route Phuktal, Zanskar, India

Living with these families, eating the food they ate and the drink they brewed (all locally grown!), using their dry compost toilets (this was our biggest challenge in Zanskar!), exchanging stories with them – we learnt of an extraordinarily simple way of life.

Tip: At first, they might be hesitant to let you stay in their homes because they know they lack the “tourist facilities”. Convince them that you can live with whatever they have to offer.

Read “When less is more or a Simple life of Sani in Zanskar”

Ongoing prayers to God, Zanskar, India

Karsha is a village close to Padum, almost at a (long) walking distance. The main lama and the nun monasteries were closed when we visited. All the monks were away to attend a ceremony in a local’s house.

View of the Karsha valley from the top of the Karsha gompa

Seeing us wait in the courtyard, an old monk who took care of the older monastery at Karsha, asked us if we would like to see it. They had closed down this monastery after its structure became dilapidated and posed a danger to monks living there. The structure is now under renovation, but the walls were filled with old symbolic art. The monk explained to us the meaning of all of the art, even drawing analogies with beliefs in Hinduism.

He was delighted that “fellow Indians” had visited his monastery. He said he had loved the sea when he had visited Mumbai many years ago. He even gifted us a katha for souvenir.

Tip: In the absence of too many tourists, such conversations are easily possible in the monasteries of the Zanskar valley.

Old monastery in Karsha, Zanskar, India

4: Have lunch with the lamas in the Zanskar valley

If you reach a monastery at lunch time, it will be assumed that you are joining the lamas in their mid-day meal. All you have to do is find a place for yourself to be seated. Someone will get a bowl for you. You will be a part of their food service. Just like that. No questions asked.

Lunch time at Phuktal  monastery, Zanskar, India

Lunch time at Phuktal  monastery, Zanskar, India

The lunch time view won’t be bad either!

Tip: Some monasteries also have guesthouses where you can stay for a small sum. In the absence of an organised stay arrangement, they might even let you pitch your tent in their grounds.

Go on self guided treks in the Zanskar valley

There is a big part of the Zanskar valley beyond the “end of the road” marking on the map. Which means there’s ample scope to discover the Zanskar valley by foot. If you don’t feel safe taking off by yourself, ask your host family for a recommended guide. If it really is safe for you to go by yourself, they will tell you so.

Bridge at Purne en route Phuktal, Zanskar, India

Like they told us when we decided to visit the Phuktal monastery – probably the most remote monastery of Zanskar.

Along the way, visit some hard to reach monasteries in the Zanskar valley. We got a chance to see the Bardan monastery on our way to the Phuktal monastery.

Bridge at Purne en route Phuktal, Zanskar, India

Read “Trek to Phuktal Monastery in Zanskar, India”

Tip: The locals are used to the high altitude of the Zanskar valley. For the outsiders, the time taken to cover a certain distance would be way longer than the locals. We would just double the estimated time told to us by the local people of Zanskar valley.

Try to grasp what remote means, in Zanskar valley

This is the sign next to the only fuel station in the entire Zanskar valley. The Indian Oil trucks we hitchhiked in while traveling to Zanskar were getting the fuel supply from Jammu to this fuel station.

A signboard in Zanskar put up by BRO, Border Roads Organisation

This board is bang opposite a petrol pump (gas station). A single hand cranked fuel dispenser is operated by a lone employee there. This petrol pump caters to the fueling needs of around 14000 people – the population of the entire Zanskar valley!

Which makes this solitary pump the one and only means for the people of Zanskar to be connected to the world beyond their valley.

Experiencing life in the fabled faraway lands was the most precious tick mark for the things to do in Zanskar valley list.

Do you have any other recommendations for things to do in the Zanskar valley? Do share your tips with us in the Comments

Looking for more ideas for traveling in Zanskar? Have a look at these stories from our travels in Zanskar

Monastery festivals of Ladakh and Zanskar

Simple life of the people of Zanskar

Trek to Phuktal monastery in Zanskar valley, India

How to reach Zanskar valley

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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.

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Comments

37 thoughts on “Things to do in Zanskar – not only Chadar and Padum

  1. sphericalinsight

    This is interesting. I like to travel and write stories about people and places but I just hold myself back and I know that I need a long time out. Hopefully, one day I will come over all this.

    1. Sandeepa Chetan Post author

      Hey Divyakshi, feels so good to read this from you! Do let us know if you need any info when you travel to Zanskar. The entire Zanskar valley was such a revelation for us, we had absolutely no idea such a place existed in India! We just followed where the road took us (and are we glad!) 🙂

  2. srikri

    Your beautiful clicks and write up is making us more and more interesting to explore this place.Thank you.:)

    Cheers,
    Sriram & Krithiga

    1. Sandeepa Chetan Post author

      Yes, after we got back from Zanskar, we were surprised when people would invariably mention Chadar trek when we talked of our travels in Zanskar. Always wanted to say how there’s so much more to do in the Zanskar valley, beyond the Chadar trek.

    1. Sandeepa Chetan Post author

      Hey Ami, glad you agree! “Zanskar?” “Oh yeah, the Chadar trek!” There was something wrong (and damaging,too!) in these reactions that we would hear. Though we should share our thoughts on that.

  3. Deepak Khale

    This is really an off beat travel blog.It must be so interesting to stay with the locals and experience their life of the remotest place first hand.