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Ladakh Zanskar Trek - The Wild Route
Another in our series of 'best-of' journeys culled from our many exploratory treks in the Indian Himalaya, featuring a crossing of the wild Phirtse La. We consider this wild route one of our best itineraries ever, an exciting and challenging trek through the sublime canyon lands, far-flung valleys of remote villages, high Himalayan passes and hidden valleys of mythical Ladakh & Zanskar. It's a river trek, so bring good sandals with you!
Our trek begins in Ladakh, the land of high passes, at the idyllic villages of Photoksar, Yulchung and Nyeraks. Crossing high passes, fording rivers and exploring our remote 'bear valley', we trek towards mythical Zanskar, a fantastic route through which other Westerners ever venture. Zanskar, the land of white copper, is a timeless Himalayan region tucked away between the Himalayan and Zanskar ranges, once part of an ancient trade network with Tibet. Once in secluded Shade, the most set-apart in Zanskar, we have an extra day to experience traditional village life before setting off on our next adventure.
Next up, following the turquoise Tsarap Chu river, is an exciting, slightly exposed canyon route to arrive at Phuktal Gompa, one of the most spectacularly set monasteries anywhere on the planet. We are in Zanskari heartland now; the traditional villages we encounter along the way a vision of days-past in Tibet and a photographer's dream. The campsites are wonderful as we cross the high Phirtse La to finish our journey.
There are plenty days built in for exploration, and lots of time to relax, enjoy the Himalayan break and soak in the surroundings ...
Join us for this exciting journey!
What a trip! Thanks for all your hard work and imagination. Truly a spectacular journey and the clientele you attracted was a magnificent bonus.
Chris R, Wild Ladakh Rupshu 2011
Kim runs a tight ship. Everything felt totally thought out and under control. It feels like Kim does such a brilliant job for her own sense of personal satisfaction - that she wouldn't do anything less then to the best of her abilities! She's really human and fun and gets right in there with you - her enthusiasm for spotting flora and fauna or taking photos is with as much genuine energy and vigor (or more!) as her trekkers who are seeing these things for the first time. She is generous in every sense of the word, helpful, warm and lovely. Lhakpa is lovely too and hilarious and laid back and will carry you across rivers. The staff are fantastic and it feels like everyone is in it together and well cared for. I really really didn't want to leave and could have quite easily committed to trekking with Kim forever! I really loved it.
Alice B, Nomads 2011
I joined Kim's Nomad trek without knowing what to expect, as it was my first trek. And I absolutely loved it. So much that I'll try to make trekking my annual activity! Kim runs a very professional trek. Her knowledge of the local landscape and history is amazing. She is genuinely interested in helping the locals (nomads) and cares for their welfare. Her staff are such a close-knit group and they work so well and seamless together. She also provides small little extras that are such a luxury during the trek, biscuits, coffee, tea and very well thought out menu. I am not a strong trekker, in fact, I came last every single day. But never did I feel isolated or concerned about my safety. I can strongly recommend Kim's trek to anyone, from beginners to experienced trekkers.
Effi J, Nomads 2011
Wow! What an unforgettable experience you have given me. I was constantly amazed at your patience with the individual needs and concerns of the group and of the heartfelt care and connection you have with your staff and horses. You are a great leadership team and a joy to wake up to each morning! The landscape, the interactions with the villagers, nuns and monks along the way, the exhilaration of the more risky bits of the trip and your smiling faces will not be forgotten. Thank you & Jullay!
Annie K, Wild Zanskar 2010
I can guarantee that Kim, Lhakpa and the crew will put on a great trip and will take good care of you! The food is exceptional and Kim's attention to detail especially in the dining tent, adds a great personal touch. Having done trips with other trekking companies before, it's the small details such this, combined with Kim's obvious passion/empathy for these places and their people/culture that has drawn me back again and again. What really sets Project Himalaya apart for me, is that they provide a fantastic off-the-beaten track experience and do truly exploratory trips in an amazing part of the world!
Celesta F - Wild Ladakh 2009
I cannot stress how wonderful a time we all had. The company is run like a big family, and the trip is still something that I think about each day. I also will be going back for another go, and I will be trekking with Kim and her great crew.
John Turek, Nomads 2009
The team at Project Himalaya are first class. My trek this year was very well organized, food and sleeping accommodation all great, good variety in the menus. Kim and Lhakpa are very professional trek leaders along with their support crew.
Dennis B, Markha Valley 2009
Arrival in India
NOTE: Flights to/from Leh are NOT included in the price or itinerary.
Everyone will need to arrange their own flight or overland trip to Leh. You can book your international flights all the way to Leh, Ladakh (IXL) which will ensure that your flight provider is responsible for hotels if your flight is delayed or cancelled. You might also want to come overland from Manali, breath-taking jeep safari, or from Srinagar, both some of the planet's most spectacular overland routes.
Email us your flight arrival details and have our contact details with you when you arrive in Delhi in case you need assistance. Kim will have her mobile with her, as will our agents from Dhruv Travels, so don't hesitate to call. We can help with hotels, flights, airport pick-ups and drops, sightseeing in Delhi or travels further to Rajasthan or Agra & the Taj Mahal. (See Dhruv Travels).
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 guest house, let alone the Leh Fort, will make you breathless for the first day or two. Diamox is a good way to help your body acclimatize naturally; Kim will discuss.
We stay at the family-run Shaynam Hotel, more of a family-run guest house 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 or Summer Harvest, a few of our favorite restaurants.
Days 2, 3 - Leh
We've scheduled two 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 16th 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. 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 15th century Leh Fort and the red, MaitreiyaTsemo 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. There is a great cultural show around sunset at Soma Gompa.
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 $25-$30.
Day 4 - Drive Photoksar 4200m (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 Hanupatta. 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 4820 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 downriver 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 4500m?
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 will take us five to six hours (we'll just do about 2 1/2 hours of it today). We start climbing right out of the village, passing the white-washed chortens and through the wire gate, often steeply. Take time to breath and look behind you towards the Singge La and the village, now a patchwork of greens, browns and tans far below us. Walking along an old irrigation wall, we soon reach a small 'watering hole' were we'll set up a spectacular high camp, cold but worth it for the evening and morning views!
Day 8 - Trek Bear Camp 3980m (over 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, switchbacking 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.
ZANSKAR VALLEY GOMPA OPTION: Get a group together to hire a jeep to visit the fascinating, old gompas of Zanskar from Padum. You will have time to visit the 1000 year old Sani Gompa on the Stod River, the route out to Rangdum and the Suru Valley. From Sani, you 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. To return, you will pass back through Padum where you can do some email or pick up supplies at the many shops. Padum is a very Central Asian feeling village, a transit point for goods coming and going from Leh to Kargil, with a large Muslim population. There are some thousand year old pre-Tibetan Buddhist Buddha carvings just below Padum, worth a look if you're stopping in town. And pick up a plate of momos on the main drag! En route back to Stongde, make a quick stop at Pipiting Gompa on a small hill in the direction of Stongde. And that should be a full day!
Kim & Lhakpa will head to Padum to resupply for the second half of the trek. Some people might want to head to central Zanskar to make a wonderful Zanskar gompa tour.
Day 12 - Trek Tzazar Doksa Sumdo 3825m
We start our wild, five-day route through the colorful gorges and canyons from Zanskar and Zangla to the remote Shun Shade valley, beginning with a section of the Jumlam, or 'middle road' route. The Jumlam is an old trade route leading into Zanskar when the rivers were low enough to trek along the riverbeds. Accordingly, we'll need sandals almost every day of this route.
Leaving our idyllic Zangla camp, we trek the 45 minutes up to the Zangla Ani Gompa (nunnery), continue along the road past the dilapidated king's house and then ascend for another half hour to the impressive Zangla Fort, home to the kings of Zangla of yore. Just afterwards we pass the protector deity's small lhakhang (god's house) on the right of the trail followed by ancient lookout towers on both sides of the valley, now crumbling and in ruins, attesting to the importance of the Jumlam route in trade centuries ago.
We walk along the irrigation ditch for a bit while descending and soon reach the green doksa of the Zangla people. From here we head left, or east, along the Zumlung Chu (river), crossing many times in the willow-shaded valley full of ancient beds of fossilized oysters. It should take us about five hours of easy walking and many river crossings to reach our campsite, just past the turnoff (to the right) leading to the main Jumlam route and the Charchar La. Our camp at Tzazar Doksa is warm and beautiful, surrounded by willows, but loses the sun early. After a wash in the stream right in front of us, take a 5 minute walk through seabuckthorne bushes to the doksa ...
Day 13 - Trek Bazza Camp 4250m
We follow the shimmering Zumlung Chu, with plenty of 'Himalayan flat' throughout the day. The first two hours of hiking are easy, crossing the river many times in a magical valley which opens up as we head north. Note the amazing canyon on our left and the dramatic, soaring canyons in general as we hike today. The valley is full of 'dinosaur plants', willows and oyster beds, a rocky, narrow valley of large scree trails. At the second sumdo, or river junction, at 3950 meters the trail narrows and we trek through a batch of seabuckthorne bushes, probably without the tart, orange berries just yet. Our trail undulates as we negotiate the tricky valley floor, often climbing and descending to avoid sheer rocks dropping to the river or thick groves of underbrush. This route is known by villagers from Tsazar just south of Zangla, who use the valley as their summer pastures. Villagers from Shade also sometimes know this remote region ...
Finally, we make a sharp right, cross the stream and ascend steeply for a bit on a trail of loose scree and rocks, which eventually flattens out. Flowers and oasis of trees appear in the stark landscape, softening it, and our trail becomes more gradual. We soon turn directly left through a grove of willows and discover our hidden camp, a stunning, green pasture by a cold and clear stream. We've named this spot Bazza camp after Bazza, who celebrated his birthday here in during our exploratory trek.
Day 14 - Trek Yangdam Chen 4430m (over Pandang La 5175m)
We start the day with a steep ascent through green pastures to the left side of the steep ravine which drops down below us. Blue sheep roam the hillsides, so keep your eyes open as you walk through the green plateaus ahead, passing several doksas en route.
We have more steep ascents ahead of us and the views become increasingly spectacular as we look over the craggy peaks behind us into Zanskar. It should take us four hours to crest the Pandang La (5175m) where we'll stop and admire the panorama of peaks for a while. The trail to our right at the pass as we look ahead towards Shade leads, eventually, to Ichar. A route to explore another year ...
We start the descent with an easy 20 minute of contouring to our left, followed by a steeper descent into the Niri Chu valley. We'll stop for lunch at the first green plateau about 45 minutes below the pass. From here, it's a half an hour to the green doksa near the river where we've set up a beautiful camp for the night right on the river.
Day 15 - Trek Niri Chun 4285m
It's an adventurous and beautiful river day today. Leaving camp, we cross the river almost immediately and continue along the right banks for half an hour on a relatively flat trail. The rivers get high in the afternoon, so we've scheduled a short day to avoid crossing dangerously high rivers. We almost continuously cross and re-cross the river this morning, staying mostly at river level, so keep your sandals on all day and have your poles with you. We'll pass a large river valley at the large sumdo on our left that leads to the nomadic region of Kharnak.
Later in the day the canyon narrows as we skirt across a rock-ledge just above the river, afterwards cross the small, intersecting stream at the next valley. We have one last climb to the grassy meadows above and see our camp on the lovely, grazing plateau of Niri Chun. Climb the ridge after lunch for some great views, and again look out for blue sheep.
Day 16 - Trek Mitsik Doksa 4285m (over Lar La 4690m)
Today brings yet another pass to cross en route to Shade, the Lar La (4850 meters). The valley is now a dramatic combination of soaring cliff-walls, canyons and green river valleys, lovely. Leaving camp, we contour on an easy trail, gradually gaining altitude until we reach a ridge named the Liyu La at 4375 meters. Taking a minute to absorb the views, we then descend to the wide, green valley below with a doksa which the locals call Lar (4280m).
Crossing this valley, we soon start up the Lar La (4690m), a steep grazing ridge which drops right down (again steeply) to a green doksa called Mitsik Doksa where we'll set up camp for the night on the pebbly riverside. Mitsik Doksa is a wide flood plain right on the stream, absolutely wonderful. Take the afternoon to do some laundry and explore down the river valley towards Niri Chu, which snakes through deep canyons below us.
We're right below the next day's pass, the Rotang La, so we will arrive at Shade early enough to explore this wonderful remote village ...
Day 17 - Trek Shade 4270m (over Rotang La 4890m)
It will take us less then three hours to climb to the 4890 meter Rotang La from camp, a relatively easy climb past Rotang Doksa (4470m) where we might find some fresh sheep-milk yogurt. From the doksa the trail switchbacks gradually to the pass at 4890 meters. The valley on the Shade side is colorful in shades of yellows, oranges and reds. It's a lovely and easy descent to Shade, with one small ridge between us, less than an hour away. We've seen snow leopard prints in this valley so keep you eyes on the trail. Just before the village we pass an extensive collection of white-washed chortens, signs of Shade's importance as an ancient trade route ...
Shade, not often visited by Westerners, is one of the high points of our trek, so we've scheduled an extra day to explore the village and the open grazing valleys north of our campsite.The village is a cluster of 14 traditional Zanskari mud-brick houses packed closely together, with corrals for the goats and sheep, grass drying on the rooftops, small vegetable gardens and an idyllic feel to it. There are approximately 95 inhabitants; three of the men are in the Indian Army, bringing a bit of extra wealth to the village. There are also five lamas/monks and one 'chomo', or nun, residing in the village, impressive for a remote village of this size. We'll visit some of the local houses for a glass of 'chang', the Tibetan barley beer, yogurt from the nearby doksa or some 'churpi', dried cheese.
Shade is surrounded by extensive fields of barley (ne), potatoes (aloo), sag (shema) and snap peas and they also have greenhouses in which they grow radish (labo), cilantro, cabbage, cauliflower and carrots. There is a small school here which is desperately in need of supplies, so this is a good place to off-load school supplies. Some of the locals stay up in the doksas north of our campsite, sometimes returning every few days and other times staying longer. The villagers rotate grazing their flocks and protecting them from the many wolves and snow leopards in the area! Local words for some of the wildlife we might encounter: snow leopard (shen), ibex (hin), blue sheep (nabo) and wolf (shanku). Our campsite is just past Shade village, on the only flat area next to a stream, a spot perfectly situated for sunrise and sunset photos of Shade village and its patchwork of fields. The villagers and village kids will be by in the afternoon, and Kim & Lhakpa will probably go into town to hunt for supplies. You're welcome to join and watch the sheep and goats bring brought into the closed paddocks for milking.
Day 18 - Trek Yatah 3995m
We have another amazing day in front of us, a six-hour trek to our next camp half way to Phuktal Gompa in central Zanskar. Leaving our Shangri-La via a trail directly below the village, we pass through the entrance chorten and descend past the harvesting villagers for about 45 minutes to where the river plummets through a narrow gorge and the canyon closes in on us. At the intersection of the Niri Chu (river) we reach the village 'lhatoo' (4100 m), a kata-covered monument dedicated to Shade's protector deity called Cho Gyumjang, a female goddess. Her peak is just to the left if you're looking up the narrow canyon towards Shade, and locals invite the monks from Phuktal Gompa to have a yearly puja for her (which we've been lucky to see). We have about ten minutes of slightly exposed trail as we head towards Trantrog Gompa (4020-meters), turning left at the lhatoo. Soon the valley opens, the turquoise river takes wide S turns and our canyons become dramatic hoodoos over the riverbed. We can see the tiny hamlet of Trantog ahead, with its small gompa said to be either 30-40 or 750 years old. Perhaps there was an ancient meditation cave at the site of this gompa, which the caretaker told us was built by a lama from Phuktal. The interesting woman who holds the key might be around to show us the village treasures. There are apparently only three people living in the village and about as many houses. Still, it's certainly a scenic spot built up on a craggy hill overlooking this idyllic valley.
From here, our trek becomes more dramatic as we descend to the Niri Chu which we cross, afterwards climbing on an exposed trail to a high, contouring trail high above the valley. Soon we reach 'Trantog Sumdo' (3960m) leading to the Shun Shade valley. We contour on a wide trail above the Nialo Kontse Chu, which the river has become after the last intersection, for another 1 1/2 hours. We pass a new and an old bridge across the river, the old one an original rope bridge. Three ridges later we've reached Tsarap Sumdo (3920m), after which the trail becomes a bit more exposed. One steep drop, slightly exposed, a similar climb back up to the trail and it's half an hour to camp at the high grazing pastures of Yatah. Yatah is about 150 meters above the trail to the right, an unexpected site after our narrow, steep-sided canyon, and it will take another half an hour to reach it.
Day 19 - Trek to Phuktal Gompa 3900m & Purne 3830m (over Phuktal La 4005m)
Another six-hour day, either climbing 100 meters above camp to drop back down to the main trail, or taking the slightly treacherous lower trail, which means a bit of cliff-hugging and rock-climbing. We'll opt for the high route! After the flags at the top of the ridge, we descend back down to meet the main trail at the point where a new, cantilevered bridge is being built. On the other side of this small gully we contour on a good trail high above the Tsarap Chu and past several small doksa. It's a hot trail as the high altitude sun reflects off the mica-filled sandy hills around us, so dress accordingly. There is a long, dusty and hot climb to reach the Phuktal La (4005m) from where we're treated to a tremendous view over Phuktal Gompa and the lovely valley. Lunch here, followed by a short descent to the gompa.
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.
Day 20 - 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 21 - Extra Day - Tangze (daytrip Kargiak)
If we've made it through the trek without needing this extra day, we'll make a daytrip to scenic Kargiak 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. It's a two or three hour walk each way to Kargiak following the Kargiak 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 ...
The green oasis of Kargyak has a solar-powered school build and sponsored by a Czechoslovakian INGO, an old village gompa up top, large, tri-colored chortens to the south of the village and several sprawling multi-family houses forming the center of this scenic village.
Day 22 - Trek Zingchen 4605m or Phirtse La High Camp 4915
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 tri-colored 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 23 - 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 24 - 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 25 - 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 26 - 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 27 - Leh
One last day in our favorite Central Asian capital ...
Day 28 - 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.