Although we try to follow the itinerary below but it is only a guideline. At times local trail, river or weather conditions may make a deviation necessary; rivers may be impassible, snow blocks passes, and landslides wipe out trails. The trekking itinerary and campsites may also vary slightly depending on the group's acclimatization rate or sickness.
The Himalaya are our passion, and we take trekking seriously. Although everyone is here on vacation, please come with a dollop of patience and compassion added to your sense of adventure ...
Day 1 - Meet in Leh 3500m
Welcome to Leh, the capital of predominantly Buddhist Ladakh, in Jammu and Kashmir, tucked away amidst the Ladakh mountains, part of the great Trans Himalayan range. If you arrive by air you'll feel the big jump in altitude and it will take your body a few days to adjust. If you arrive by road from Manali or Srinagar you'll have had some extra acclimatization en route, but will still need time to adjust to the 3500 meter altitude. Hydrate with plenty of water, stay away from beer for a few days, rest and don't over-exert yourself. Even walking up the stairs of the guesthouse, let alone the Leh Fort, will make you breathless for the first day or two. 250 mg of Diamox twice a day is a good way to help your body acclimatize naturally. We recommend starting the day before you fly up to Leh.
We stay at the family-run Shaynam Hotel, more of a family-run guesthouse with a lovely garden in the center courtyard, located just a few minutes south of the Main Bazaar in old Leh town. Your rooms will be booked for you, you'll just need to advise Kim of your arrival time, whether by air or by road. Once everyone has arrived and checked into rooms, Kim will show you around town: the bakeries, cafes, tandoori restaurants, email cafes, banks and wonderful markets. We'll meet for dinner in the evening at the Ibex, Chopsticks, Penguin or Summer Harvest, a few of our favorite restaurants.
Days 2, 3 - Leh
We've scheduled two more free days in Leh to acclimatize and to enjoy the peaceful, willow-lined streets and bustling bazaar life of Singge Namgyal's 17th century capital of Ladakh, once an integral part of Western Tibet and a major trading post along the southern Silk Route. There is lots to explore in this wonderful Central Asian town; the newly-restored ruins of the 17th century Leh Palace, the ancient 15th century Leh Fort and the attached Namgyal Tsemo Gompa, other historic Tibetan Buddhist gompas, the Sunni Muslim mosques, narrow back alleys with steaming Muslim bread, tiny antique shops tucked away amidst the many ancient stupas and architectural remnants, the exotic Main Bazaar (c. 1840s) which once accommodated trade caravans, and even a polo field. Today, the Main Bazaar is a colorful street, the sidewalks crammed mornings and afternoons with Ladakhi women selling their fresh fruits and vegetables, and locals at the far end vending their dried nuts, apricots and apples.
Caravans of merchants from far-flung destinations such as Yarkand, Tibet, Kashgar and North India passed through Leh during ancient trade missions, trading salt, wool, Pashmina, tea and semi-precious stones, lending to the city its exotic allure. Pilgrims flocked to the monasteries of Leh and the Indus valley, explorers of old stopped in Leh to re-stock and weather out the harsh Himalayan winter and soldiers en route to plunder and conquer desirous destinations passed through Leh, all leaving their mark on this unique capital.
Kim will take you for a walk up the bustling Fort Road, lined with shops owned by Kashmiri, Tibetan and Kashmiri shop-keepers, to the crumbling but majestic Leh Fort (3680 meters) and the red, Maitreiya Tsemo Gompa, perched high on a craggy and crumbling hilltop overlooking the bazaars of old Leh. You can stop at 16th century nine-story Leh Palace, of a similar architectural design to the Tibetan Potala Palace, on the way down if you have the energy. Visit the museum, a worthwhile endeavor, as well as the nearby gompas (Tibetan Buddhist monasteries) - Soma Gompa, Chamba Lakhang and Chensrig Lakhang.
We might wander the willow-lines streets of Changspa to reach the many steps leading to the Japanese-built Shanti Stupa for a view over the green fields and white-washed Ladakhi houses of the villages surrounding Leh. The precariously perched Leh Fort guards the eastern edges of the fertile valley. Sankar Gompa (17th - 18th century), reached through shady lanes to the east of Changspa, lies in the midst of Chubi's groves of poplar and willow and is another wonderful morning or afternoon walk. The back route to Leh Fort starts in Chubi and passes through a desert-like Buddhist cremation ground before climbing to the fortress.
OPTIONAL GOMPA TRIP: Arrange (through Kim, our Tibetan jeep-driver Wang Chuk or the Shaynam Hotel) a 'jeep safari' through the fertile Indus Valley to visit a few of the living Tibetan Buddhist gompas, the crumbling ruins of ancient fortresses and palaces and the traditional villages that dot the banks of the region, the 'cradle of civilization' of much of the ancient world. Kim can help arrange jeeps and/or a guide for a day's excursion.
To the East: Shey, Thikse, Hemis, Chemde, Thagthok, Stakna, Matho & Stok.
To the West: Spiyok, Phyang, Basgo, Likir, Alchi, Rizdong & Lamayuru.
OPTIONAL RAFTING-TRIP: You can arrange a day rafting trip on the Indus (easier) or the Zanskar River, approximately $40.
Day 4 - Drive Photoksar 4185m (over Sirsir La 4825m)
After breakfast we board our jeeps and head for the start of the trek at Photoskar, 6 or 7 hour drive through the historical, green Indus Valley. Leaving Leh we drive past the ancient Spitok Gompa, spectacularly perched on a craggy hillock above the cultivated fields of Spitok village and Phyang Gompa and village to the right. We continue along a cliff-side road past the intersection of the Indus River with the Zanskar River, the Zanskar villagers' lifeline during the harsh winters. Look out the back windows for a spectacular panorama of the Ladakh range, which extends westward to meet the Karakorum range in the distance. About an hour later, we'll spot Basgo Gompa and Fort, a 500 year old World Heritage site, situated spectacularly on a spur above the Indus. Further down the Indus on the right is the link road to Likir Gompa, and to the left the turnoff to the 1000 year old Alchi Gompa, built in the Northern Indian style with wonderful frescos and murals inside the many prayer rooms. Just past Alchi is the link road to Rizdong on the right; soon afterwards we cross the Indus at Khaltse, and continue to the turn off to Panjilla a half hour down the road.
Panjilla is a lovely village lined with apricot trees and lively with villagers. We drive further to the Sumdo and then on the spectacular gorge road to the the scenic village of Hanupatta (3845m). Pink Zanskar roses line the road, leaving behind a scent of cinnamon, and incredible spires of rock tower above at every corner. We continue on the new road giving access to Photoksar, passing through the long village of Hanupatta with ancient carved mani walls and chortens. The valley widens as we slowly ascend, and the rock-spires become ever more impressive, their hues of ochre and tans glowing gently in the morning rays. We cross the large-ish Spong Togpa river on a new Bailey's bridge, and soon afterwards crest the 4825 meter Sirsir La, our first of many Ladakhi passes (Ladakh means 'Land of high passes').
Expansive views of the craggy ranges surrounding us at the prayer-flag festooned summit of the Sirsir La. We descend the steep ridge to our left, passing yellow poppy-like flowers, 'bee balm' (bees love this flower) or monarda from which earl grey tea is made and marmots popping their heads out of their burrows. We continue to ascend easily, soon crossing a small stream and climbing a bit to reach an amazing complex of a white-washed kane (entrance) chorten, a mani wall and a lama's seat. Don't miss the view of Photoskar between the chorten door!
Just around the corner is the incredibly scenic village of Photoksar, perched precariously on a hillside just past our camp, where if the wild flowers are in bloom, is one of the most beautiful spots in Ladakh, and certainly one of the most photographed. Our campsite has amazing views down river to Photoksar, and the villagers, herding their flocks of sheep and goats, will stop by our campsite en route back to Photoksar with their herd of sheep and goats coming down from the high grazing hills.
We'll set you up in your tents, show you around our 'Kamzang' style dining tent and settle in with a mug of chai ... Take a walk along the river to the interesting village in the afternoon, well worth a bit of time, and spend the early evening watching the sun-rays filter through the village haze and the villagers heading back from the barley fields.
Day 5 - Drive Singge La 4970m. Trek Yulchung 3900m (over Singge La 4970m)
in the jeep this morning as we head towards our second pass, the Bumiktse La at 4400 meters, passing a summer 'doksa' or grazing area. The deep gorge leading directly to Panjilla rises dramatically to our left, and we'll be greeted with great views of Photoksar and its fertile valley from the pass. Ahead is the Utah-like bulk of the Singge (lion) Peak and the Singge La (pass). This valley is the high pasture of the Photoksar villagers, and we pass their herds of sheep, goats and yaks en route to Yulchung. Next up is the prayer-flag festooned 5000 meter Singge La, the 'lion pass' where we'll have views across Ladakh and Zanskar. Our road snakes its way up to the top of the pass from the left of the valley while the old trail still goes up the middle through the wildflowers, by the small parachute tent owned by Nyawang Jigmet of Yulchung.
After a break to hang five-colored Tibetan prayer flags we drop steeply into the dramatic canyon on slightly exposed trails, contouring along old trails lined with Zanskar rose bushes. There are often blue sheep and ibex in this region, so have cameras ready and eyes open for falling rocks. The massive, ochre-colored canyon walls to our left as we descend have been smoothed and textured by millenniums of wind and water erosion which have left strange caves throughout. The valley heats up as we follow the small trail, through pastures of wildflowers, lichen-covered rocks and grasses, that leads to the isolated village of Yulchung, which means 'small kingdom'. Yulchung is a remote, traditional village with a five-hundred year old gompa on the upper reaches of the village and another smaller 'lhakhang' perched on a precarious rock-ledge in front of the crescent-shaped village.
The staff has set up our camp behind the ancient chortens, in the threshing fields on the top edge of the village, right next to some wonderful old Ladakhi dwellings. The views from this village win Kim's vote for 'the-best-of-the-trek', and the villagers, not used to many trekkers, are welcoming and open. Tomorrow's pass is visible in the distance, as is the pass leading to 'bear valley', high up in the peaks in front of us, past the powerful Zanskar River. We'll have many local visitors during the course of the afternoon and evening, including Kim's wonderful Zanskari grandmother Sonam Yanskit, and will hope to have a chance to visit a traditional Ladakhi house and the gompa in the afternoon. Sonam Yanskit's husband Nyawang Jigmet has a parachute teahouse on the other side of the Singge La and is often in Yulchung.
Day 6 - Trek Nyeraks 3710m
A fantastically scenic Himalayan day! We leave camp and wind our way through the extensive village and fields, eventually passing the ruins of the old 'lhakhang' and hermitage as we head towards the ridge that drops steeply out of Yulchung to the Zanskar River canyons far below. Keep an eye out for the red fox that lives in the vicinity, and for blue sheep grazing along the hillsides. After contouring around several hillsides, we have a small climb to the Chocho Khuri La, at 3865 meters. We then drop down a steep switchback into the gorge of the Zanskar River, which we cross by a wooden, cantilevered bridge that has definitely seen better days (look at the construction). We climb up the hillside on a winding trail past a unique version of a 'lhatoo' (a shrine to the mountain deities the locals believe live on local peaks), a sculpture made from ibex horns, to the village of Nyeraks, perched on a plateau high above the Zanskar. You begin to understand the harshness of life in such a setting, between pass and river gorge, a seemingly impossible place, with its own beautiful monastery, and even an old, sacred tree. The small village gompa is wonderful, a real relic of times past ...
Our campsite is another spectacular one (in a chain of them), with incredible sunset views over the village, gompa and surrounding peaks. The quality of light in this part of the Himalaya is breathtaking, so be sure to have an evening stroll through the village and take some shots. Kim's grandmother's daughter, Thinle Angmo, lives in Nyeraks and will be by for a visit for sure. One of the large houses near the gompa, perhaps formerly a royal dwelling, has an exquisite house-gompa inside which we can try to visit also.
Day 7 - Trek Nyeraks High Camp 4650m
We head off on the first half of our steep, 1300 meter ascent from Nyeraks up to the 4950 meter Takti La, a difficult climb which would take five to six hours in one go, but we'll just do about 2 1/2 hours of it this morning. We start climbing right out of the village, passing the white-washed chortens and going through the wire gate. The hike is mostly steep, contouring up the many hillsides, through pateches of glacial rocks, always lovely. Take time to breath and look behind you towards the Singge La and Nyeraks, now a patchwork of greens, browns and tans far below us. Walking along an old irrigation wall, we soon reach a small, green 'watering hole' were we will set up a spectacular high camp, cold but worth it for the evening and morning views!
Day 8 - Trek Bear Camp 3980m (cross Takti La 4955m)
Fresh pressed coffee and chai will be welcome on this chilly morning! We continue to climb and descend several times to cairn-topped ridges, finally after a few hours making our way carefully through the scree-slope leading to the Takti La. Notice the glacier flower blooming though out the walk. By lunchtime, we will be looking back across to the Singge La and the serrated ridges that we have crossed over the past few days, and an hour later, after a steep switchback to a glacial stream where we might be able to refill water and another more gradual climb, we will have crested our second, smaller pass (named Oh Shit La, at 4580m, after the view upon reaching this pass from the other direction, and seeing the Takti La looming ominously ahead of us). We have now entered what we call 'bear valley', and a steep, switch backing trail down brings us down to the end of the valley, where we turn right into a green valley of willows and flowers, still following the small stream. Making our way on the small, overgrown trail, crossing the stream a few times, we reach to the clearing that we call Bear Camp (although we haven't actually spent the night there with one) in another hour.
We've entered our 'lost valley' of Zanskar! The crew will light a fire tonight to keep the bears at bay (although the rumors are that the villagers of Zangla shot them after the bears raided their sheep paddocks). Zanskar translates as 'land of white copper', a once remote collection of Himalayan kingdoms cut off from the rest of the world by the Himalayan Range to the south, and the Zanskar Range to the north.
Note: Our only actual bear spotting was in 2003, when our group did this trek for the first time. We spotted a brown bear cub right next to us, and then across the valley what we presumed to be its parents, not looking happy that a large group of trekkers were hanging out with their offspring. The next season we only spotted frozen bear scat and no prints, but in 2005 we again spotted fresh bear scat, so we presume that the bears are back! We hope to see them again!
Day 9 - Trek Karmafu 3780m
Our short walk today is an exciting and beautiful one, first along the willow-lined stream, jumping back and forth often, and then over (or under) an ice bridge and through a narrow canyon with ankle deep water (bring sandals). Next on the list of adventures is a high, exposed trail over the river followed by an easy river fording and another canyon trek on crumbling trails. Just past this tricky section, we crest a small rise and have a lovely view down valley towards our plateau campsite, a spectacular one. We often stop for lunch a at the junction of a small stream where in 2005 Kim set off alone to help get camp set up, heard a loud splashing very close to her which she assumed to be a bear, and came running back to the lunch spot. Joel and the boys, ever brave, came running out with the bear spray to do battle. Be on the lookout for the prints and scat of snow leopard, fox and wolf as well as bear.
We arrive in our fantastic, cliff-side campsite in the early afternoon, in time to enjoy the views, go for a dip in the stream, and possibly spot some blue sheep and ibex that roam the hillsides here. The hoodoos that line the riverbank opposite camp are amazing sculptures of eroded rock and mud, that hosted a show of acrobatic blue sheep several years ago. We might build a campfire in the evening, a practice first started to keep the bears away years ago!
Day 10 - Trek Zangla Doksa River Camp 3430m (over Namtse La 4495m)
A small saddle above our campsite topped with a barrier of sticks leads us back down into a dramatic, narrow valley. Our small trail follows the same willow-lined stream as yesterday which we follow as we ascend for an hour or so, often jumping from side to side. After hiking through the tight willows, the valley broadens and the views open in front of us as we ascend under hoodoos backed by brilliant blue sky. Chukkars chortle and rush up the arid hillsides and grazing yaks glance up as we invade their pristine territory. Continuing up a bit more steeply for another few hours, it's an easy crossing of the Namtse La, a desert-like pass at 4495 meters. If the weather cooperates this is our lunch spot, a scenic one!
Afterwards, we'll drop steeply into another valley of Zanskar roses which, after some three hours walking, brings us out onto the wide plain that was the once kingdom of Zangla. You really get a sense of why this remained a hidden kingdom for so long as you look around; to your left, the capital, Zangla and its hilltop fort. Past Zangla, the Himalayan barrier, and the Umasi La to Kashmir; the wooden beams that are the center of most Zanskari houses came from there, laboriously carried by porters. Below the Zanskar curves away into the Muslim Suru valley and the Pensi La, closed for all but three months of every year and in front, behind the villages of Pidmo and Pishu, the Zanskar range cuts off approach for all but those like us, a well-equipped caravan.
After emerging from the gorge we have a one-hour walk through Honya Doksa and along the Zanskar plateau (or along the riverside, a slightly longer but nicer route) to our lovely riverside camp that we call Zangla Doksa River camp. Doksa means seasonal nomadic settlement in Ladakhi, and the locals from Honya Doksa will pass by in the evenings with their large herds of sheep, goats and donkeys, making for some classic photos of traditional life in Zanskar. The grass is green and the stream warm, so go for a wash and settle in for the evening. Sunsets and sunrises are amazing from camp!
Day 11 - Zangla Doksa River Camp
Finally a rest and exploration day; options are to hang at camp and relax in this sublime setting or to hike up and explore the wonderful and historic Zanskari village of Zangla.
ZANGLA OPTION: Climbing gradually out of our campsite, we hike along the plateau past a weathered rock carved with thousand-year old Mon chortens, soon reaching Zangla Chomo Gompa (nunnery) to the northern side of the village, and then follow the village road past the King of Zangla's house, where we had tea last summer with the royal residents, including the Queen Mother. The young King of Zangla is now in his 40s, and the new house right next to the somewhat dilapidated royal residence is the house of the village carpenter! The piece de resistance of Zangla, however, is its fortress, presently being restored by an organization called 'Cosmos Room'. The ruins of the 500 year-old Zangla Fort, the old dzong (palace fortress) of the ancient Kings of Zangla, are a breathtaking site, built precariously on top of a ledge of rock at the intersection of the Zanskar River and the small river leading out to the Jumlam, or middle route. This route was an autumn trading route to avoid the high passes of Ladakh, and must have been open to invasions, thus the fort and series of lookout towers down the Jumlam valley. The dzong houses a wonderful prayer room, which we happened upon a few years ago. In 2005, over two straight weeks of continuous rain and wind literally 'melted' the dzong, and it is now quite as safe as it was previously. The famous Hungarian scholar Alexander Csoma de Koros spent a winter in the 19th century studying Tibetan in order to make a dictionary in a room in the fort, now commemorated as his room. The fort is guarded over by a giant, new stupa built in 2009, while more ancient chortens with tsatsas in the niches line the trail as we descend back to the village and eventually to camp.
Day 12 - Zanskar Valley Tour. Drive Ichar
We will embark on a great Zanskar Valley Gompa tour today, hiring a few jeeps to visit the fascinating, old gompas of Zanskar. First we will drive up to Stongde Gompa, with a lively monastic community, a school and an active monastery with daily pujas in their ancient and mystical assembly hall. Some might opt to hike steeply up the dusty traverse, a 45-minute climb, to Stongde Gompa for some wonderful views of the patchwork of Stongde village and the Zanskar valley. Beyond are the snow-capped Himalayas, a magical site. Stongde Gompa, approximately 950 years old, is one of the oldest in Ladakh or Zanskar, and one of the most colorful, perched precariously up on a craggy rock ledge, and surrounded by lovely birch woods. We have many friends there; Geshe Stenzin, one of the head lamas, and his brother will probably invite us for tea and give us a tour of the gompa, including it's room of treasures in back of the oldest 'lha khang', or prayer hall. We will try to catch the mystical morning puja (generally 7-8:30 am) in the butter-lamp lit prayer room, a surreal experience with resonating, deep chanting, cymbals, Tibetan drums, a step back hundreds of years in time ...
Next we will make a quick stop at Pipiting Gompa on a small hill, soon afterwards reaching lively Padum. Padum, a town with a Central Asian atmosphere,is a transit point for goods coming and going from Leh to Kargil and has a large Muslim population. There are some thousand year old pre-Tibetan Buddhist Buddha carvings just below Padum, worth a look if we have time.
We'll will visit the 1000 year old Sani Gompa on the Stod River, the route out to Rangdum and the Suru Valley. From Sani, we can take the back roads to Karsha Gompa, one of the largest and most scenic in Zanskar or Ladakh, built high up into the cliffs above the village of Karsha.
After the tour we continue to drive south on the newly built road, first passing fortress-like Bardan Gompa on a cliff-side road, then Pibchu Gompa and village, soon afterwards rounding the corner to Mune and its gompa. We cross the river (all new to us from now), using the new road on the right of the river, and recrossing before the interesting village of Ichar. The team has set up camp below the village on a beautiful, green campsite just above the bridge. We'll have time in the afternoon to hike up to this village, with a small school, small monastery and newly rebuilt, large chorten to have a visit with the locals.
Day 13 - Trek Cha
A classic day of Zanskar trekking, hiking along the main Zanskar trail to our next campsite at Cha, a new camping spot for us (although we'd struggle to call this day exploratory!). We cross the Japanese-style bridge just below camp and continue south along a flat, hot trail which often descends right to the river-beach. Look to your left as you first cross the river and reach a group of old chortens - an old monastery or fort, now crumbling, is built right into the inaccessible rock face above the river. We follow the easy trail lined with Zanskar rose bushes and bustling with bird life, descend to a black beach and soon after reach the one teahouse at Pepula. Crossing another small bridge, this time over a stream intersecting the Tsarap Chu, we hike another hour, dropping way down to a natural rock bridge and then switch-backing up to the small, green hamlet of Tsetang, also called Changpa. Another hour of cliff-side hiking along the undulating trail brings us to the tea-house across from Cha where the reclusive Cha Ani Gompa is perched unbelievably in the cliff-side opposite us. Hopefully we'll find a level, unplanted spot in this lovely village to set up camp, and set out to do some explorations of the village. (5 hrs)
Day 14 - Trek Purne 3830m (via Phuktal Gompa 3900m)
We take the high route (new for us) high above the Tsarap Chu to Phuktal Gompa, spectacularly built into a cliff-side, is one of the most colorful gompas in Zanskar as well as one of the oldest Tibetan Buddhist monasteries in the Indian Himalaya. Phuktal Gompa has a school attached, and the young, lively monks are always keen to practice their English or to have a photo taken. The gompa itself is a real Central Asian treasure with ancient prayer rooms, an old library, a fountain with magical waters in the original cave, a Tibetan medicine center, a wonderful kitchen and many old friends. Singge, the young Zanskari boy that we sponsor for school at the Himalayan Buddhist School in Manali, stayed a few years at this Phuktal before being 'evicted' for bad behavior!
After exploring the gompa, we descend to the Tsarap Chu, crossing it on a long, wooden bridge, from where we have almost two hours of undulating trail to camp. It's a beautiful hike along the Tsarap Chu on a precipitous but recently improved canyon trail. Purne is at confluence of the Tsarap Chu and the Kargyak Chu and on the main Zanskar route so there are sure to be trekkers around. Camp is lovely, grassy and warm to take advantage of the free time to relax, do some laundry and have a cold beer from Dolma's shop. Dolma is the local amchi, a good friend of ours, and also has hot bucket shower on offer. (4 hrs)
Day 15 - Trek Tangze 4015m
Leaving our idyllic campsite at Purne, we descend back down to the small bridge and then hike back up to the main Zanskar trail following the Kargyak Chu. Kargyak is a large village at the end of the Zanskar valley; Singge comes from this village, and his blind mother still lives there, migrating to the 'doksas' to take care of the animals in the summertime. We pass the small village of Yal, where fodder and kindling dry on the rooftops, in half an hour, and then continue on our high trail overlooking the Kargyak Chu for another hour until we reach the labyrinthine village of Testa, an oasis of green fields and traditional Zanskari houses. Next comes the colorful Kuru with its many threshing circles and white-washed mani walls. Trekking further along the trail past Kuru's long chain of mani walls, we descend crossing a small stream coming down from our right, and then continue along the river bank for another half an hour. We cross the Kargyak Chu on a large bridge, continuing for another hour or so to the village of Tangze, with its many-hued patchwork of fields. We'll stop at the small the small teahouse, owned by our friend Sonam Dorje, for a cup of tea. Above us to the right of the trail is Tangze Gompa, one of the oldest in Zanskar, backed by jagged, dun-colored peaks.
We set up camp somewhere near here for the night, leaving the main Zanskar valley behind us the day after tomorrow.
Day 16 - Trek Kargyak 4200m
We set off on a scenic hike to Kargyak village, the first southern village in Zanskar. Singge, the boy we sponsor at the Himalayan Cultural School in Manali, comes from this village, and we'll probably meet his blind mother and his cousin, a teacher at the school. It's a three hour walk each way to Kargyak following the Kargyak Chu along a lovely, green valley, with the Gompa Rangjung monolith looming spectacularly in front of us in the direction of the Shingo La pass to Lahaul. En route to Kargyak, we pass several mani walls, followed by a series of ancient, whitewashed chortens, a beautiful hike.
The green oasis of Kargyak has a solar-powered school build and sponsored by a Czechoslovakian INGO, an old village gompa up top, large, tricolored chortens to the south of the village and several sprawling multi-family houses forming the center of this scenic village. (3 hrs)
Day 17 - Trek Surichun La High Camp 4800? - exploratory!
We'll be exploring a new route to the Phirtse La, one not taken by many other trekking groups and which we learned more about last year! Below is the route which we usually take to the Phirtse La, and we'll revise the new route this year:
We're heading along an ancient trans-Himalayan trade route for the rest of the trek. Until the 1980s the Changpas from Tibet came two times a year to trade barley with the Zanskaris. Starting in Serchu on the Leh-Manali highway, they crossed the Phirtse La with their caravans and arrived at Tangze in the Lungnak valley to trade their salt and wool. See Janet Rizvi's 'Caravans of the Himalayas' for more about this ...
A beautiful day of trekking as we head west up the second valley just beyond Tangze. The checker of vibrant green field opens up below us as we climb higher, passing the tricolored chortens at the far end of the village and entering the narrow gorge to our left and climbing steeply. We follow a trickle of a stream on colored river rocks, taking a sharp turn right up the steep hillside to our right. Look for blue sheep and horns as we hike. We climb through green pastures and a doksa, and an hour plus later we've reach a craggy ridge which we call the Tangze La (4585m) which offers magnificent views down to lower Zanskar and towards the Shingo La (pass) leading to Lahaul. Below us, spread throughout the Zanskar valley, the hillsides are colored in shades of eggplant, green and mustard. River deltas below create artistic patterns and blue flowers surrounded by a sage-like brush decorate the ground underfoot.
We descend gently, cross a few small streams and set up camp at what locals call Zingchen, an idyllic green campsite in the valley. We may head another few hours up the valley to a higher camp ...
Day 18 - Trek to Chumik Marpo 4775m (over Phirtse La 5570m)
Crossing to the other side of the valley 15 minutes past camp, usually jump able, we climb and descend on the left bank of the river as we head towards the pass. We pass a small doksa, a campsite for a small group, after an hour or so, afterwards crossing the river again to the left bank. Three hours from camp we finally reach Phirtse La High Camp (4900m), after which the trail turns rocky and we share the valley with grazing yaks. The colors of the valley turn more grey, black and ochre as we ascend on a good path, stopping for a break at a green patch with a large boulder and admiring the glaciers and snow-peaks that surround us. The last, steep, 400-meter switchback brings us, grindingly, to the crest of the Phirtse La at 5570 meters, an impressive climb and a view to match.
Heading down the right hand valley we enter another green, fertile grazing valley and follow the rolling hills for an hour, having lunch at a sheltered doksa. We cross the small stream next to us, climb a small ridge and then the right fork of the valley. After a steep climb and descent on a shale trail, jumping several small streams, we contour around brown hillsides, passing far above several local doksas. The valley widens and we reach another wonderful campsite called Chumik Marpo, which overlooks rolling green hills ahead. Behind is the route to Kargyak over the 4620 meter Surichun La.
Day 19 - Trek to Berga Songchak 4410m
We have a river crossing first thing in the morning so have your sandals ready. It will take us 45 minutes to reach a plateau camp, followed by a stone doksa on our right. We'll hike along the same side of the river for an hour to reach the wide and cold crossing, our first of the day. Afterwards more green valleys and rolling hills, just paradise. Valleys to the right lead to snow-peaks and the river grows as glacial melt adds to its volume. Lichen covered granite, weather-worn sedimentary rocks and purple flowers dot the landscape; we start to pass long, ancient mani walls signifying that we're entering nomadic lands. The walking is easy with flat trails and grass underfoot, with a few small climbs en route. We pass more signs of nomadic existence and then have to cross the wide and often difficult Khamberop Togpo (river) at Kham Krap. We may take people over on horses; at the least use poles and link arms.
We often pass local 'gaddi' shepherds from Lahaul and the neighboring Hindu valleys with their large flocks of sheep and goats as we continue towards Sarchu, past Kyonon doksa. We trek through this wide expanse of river, green valleys, blue sky and snow peaks, past mani stones with chortens carved into them, and over a few small ridges for an hour before heading directly down to the river and another idyllic campsite at Berga Songchak, right on the river.
Day 20 - Trek to Chumik Gyartse 4280m
We continue through this magical landscape, crossing several more small streams, trekking past ancient rocks deposited by glaciers eons ago, with several deep valleys to descend into and climb out of until we reach the canyons leading to Sarchu. Sarchu is across the large Lingti Chu (river) from our campsite at Chumik Gyartse. Just before our old campsite at Sarchu we have other medium sized river crossing, which can be larger depending on the water level. Afterwards, we hike through a briar patch of seabuckthorne, along a spring-fed stream, jumping or wading through a few intersecting streams. Soon we reach a large bridge spanning the Tsarap Chu and hike half an hour north towards our wonderful campsite at the waterfall springs just below Chumik Gyartse. Chumik Gyartse is where the Shun Shade valley inhabitants relocated years ago, and it's interesting to hike half an hour to their new village. There is much controversy over whether life was better or worse in their old valley, the elders tending to regret the move.
Ang Chuk and the boys will meet us at camp, having parked their jeeps at the Sarchu army camp. We can look across the river to the Leh-Manali highway but our campsite is isolated and beautiful, on the side of a small stream for washings. We'll have our tips party for the guys tonight ...
Day 21 - Drive Leh
The trek is finished, and we'll relax in our jeeps and enjoy the spectacular five hour drive through Rupshu and the Indus Valley along the Manali - Leh highway; a continuation of our wonderful journey.
Back at the Shaynam Guest House in Leh, hot showers and a clean change of clothes await, and tandoori food and cold beers are not far away at the Ibex, Chopsticks or Summer Harvest.
Day 22 - Leh
One last day in our favorite Central Asian capital ...
Day 23 - Trip Ends
Our wonderful Himalayan journey ends today, sadly. You have several options after the trip: a flight back to Delhi, an epic 'jeep safari' back to Manali or elsewhere in the Indian Himalaya, or spending more time in Leh. We're happy to assist on all fronts, but Leh flights are not included in our India treks.
NOTE: If you have successive international flights that are not all part of the same ticket or following domestic flights we suggest planning more cautiously and leaving an extra day in Leh.