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.
In the winter, the Zanskar river freezes. Walking over this frozen river is the only way then for the people to access the outside world, which is why this river freezing is essential to their survival in winter. For those who respect this lifeline, the Chadar trek can be an expereince of a lifetime.
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
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
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.
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.
An hour into our truck ride, it was clear we wouldn’t make it to Padum by nightfall.
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”.
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 during the summer months.
How did we cross through the Penzi la?
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.
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 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 bleaker. 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 liters of diesel behind us, we made beds out of the truck seats and slept blissfully.
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.
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 an 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 are 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.