8/15/2008 to 9/3/2008 | India , Ladakh

Trekking Across Zanskar

legacy gallery with captions

I walked up Chanspa road in Leh towards the Sandwich Bar where a group was meeting to discuss the logistics for a self organized trek to Zanskar.  I had planned on doing the Lamayuru to Darcha trek across the remote region of Zanskar, so when I noticed a flyer asking for people to join a self organized trek from Lamayuru to Padam (the first leg of the across Zanskar trek), I asked if I could join.  I met my fellow “trekkers” at the Sandwich Bar, Tom Lev an Israeli girl stereotypically just out of the army but unstereotypically not traveling in a posse of fellow Israelis, a university student from Toronto named Alex, originally from Kazakhstan he was an ethnically Russian Jew who emigrated to Canada via Israel, and a couple who lived most recently in Washington D.C., the female half Sonia a self described Russian whose family had emigrated to Cleveland from Moscow, while the male half, Pancho, was an Argintinan economist who had most recently been working in D.C.  I have to admit I was a bit surprised at the lack of trekking experience of the others.  None of the others had done any trekking in Ladakh and three of the other four had never trekked in the mountains.  I had to admire their courage.  The Lamayuru to Padam trek was one of the most difficult of the commonly trekked routes in Ladakh.  I had been a little leery of doing it on my own despite my previous trekking experience, so I was happy to find others who were planning on attempting it at the same time.  They were either brave, naïve, or foolish, maybe a combination of all the above.  But given some of my previous adventures the same might have been said of me, I got along with them and I was happy to join them.  They were planning to trek without a tent or stove staying in villages along the way.  This was what I had been intending to do as well, but I did convince them that we should bring a large tarp that we could use for a shelter if we happened to get stuck out in the elements.

Two days later we caught a bus to from Leh to Lamayuru the starting point of the trek and home to an important monastery.  The weather was inauspiciously poor and it began to rain in the early afternoon just after we had checked in to a guesthouse.  The reward for the unusually poor weather was a spectacular rainbow which emerged when the skies began to clear in the late afternoon.  Knowing we would have little choice in our food once we began the trek we decided to make use of the decently stocked market and guesthouse kitchen to cook our own pasta (well actually noodles).  In any case, the sauce did come out well, despite lacking traditional Italian spices such as basil and oregano.

We got off to a bit of a slow start when Tom Lev came down sick but after spending an extra day in the beautiful village of Hanupata, there are far worse fates than this, everyone was ready to continue.  From Hanupata we hiked over 4800 m Sirsir La, the first of many high altitude passes en route to Padam, and reached the most beautiful village on the trek, Photoksar.  Perched at the mouth of a steep sided gorge amidst lush fields and shear rock walls that rise to high snow capped peaks, Photoksar’s location is stunning.  We arranged to stay in the home of a very nice woman in the fields outside of town.  The elderly woman who we negotiated the stay spoke very little English but fortunately when her daughter arrived back from the fields we were able to communicate a little better.  We enjoyed the fresh goat cheese and the roasted barley our gracious host provided, as well as a delicious dinner of Tunkpa (a Tibetan style thick noodle soup).

The next morning we started off towards the 5000 m Sengge La with the intention of staying at the tea tent that was supposed to be on the Photoksar side of the pass.  The only problem, the tea tent wasn’t there.  I kept expecting to see the tent over the next ridge but finally we reached the final series of switch backs just below the pass and I realized there was no tea tent, we were going over the pass today.  After a rest at the top of the pass to enjoy the view, we made our way down the other side of the pass.  We finally reached the base camp tea tent, on the other side of the pass, late in the afternoon.  It was not a particularly good night’s sleep on the hard stone benches but the warm meal was very welcome after the long day’s walk.

The next day was a comparatively easy walk to Lingshed, home to a large gompa (monastery).   My companions hired donkeys to take their bags over the steep 4700 m Hanamul La the following day.  The trek over the Hanamul La, while not the highest pass on the trek, is certainly the most difficult coming from the Lamayuru direction.  After climbing steadily from Lingshed one is faced with a demoralizing decent before a 2 hour climb of continuous switch backs over the pass.  The tea tent at Snertse where we were going to stay was not particularly conducive for accommodating 5 people in addition to the proprietors so we opted to stay in cave shelters nearby using the tarp to extend the cave’s stone ledge.  Fortunately, despite a little rain earlier in the afternoon, the night was relatively warm and without further precipitation.

One more pass, two homestays and a bus ride with a baby yak later we were in Padum, scarffing down fresh fruit.  Padum could not be described as a pretty town and after hiking through picturesque villages and over high mountain passes on predominately rice and overcooked vegetables, the highlight of Padum was a hot bucket of water and fresh fruit.  The monastic village of Karsha across the valley is a much more picturesque and pleasant locality.  While my companions decided to stay in Padum I headed over to Karsha in the afternoon returning the following morning.  The monks at gompa were very friendly and I ended up having a dinner of Tunkpa with the monks.

I returned to Padam the following day and met up with my trekking companions.  All but Sonia were returning to Leh by bus, while we continued on to Darcha, another 7 days of trekking.  While during the first half of the trek every day was marked by at least one sometimes two high passes offering panoramic views of the surrounding landscape, the trail from Padam to Darcha follows a river valley gradually pushing upwards to the 5080 m Shinkul La crossing the Great Himalaya Range.  While the views may not have been quite as impressive as the first half of the trek what it lacked in high passes it made up for in quaint villages, the dramatically located Phukhal Gompa, and friendly homestays.  Phukhal Gompa is a short day hike off the main trail and is one of the most impressive monasteries in all of Ladakh and Zanskar.  An amazing feat of building, it covers the shear cliff side like a waterfall of white adobe against the golden rock of the cliff.  After spending a day with a friendly monks at Phukhal Gompa we hiked on to the village of Tangzen where we a friendly family took us in.  We decided to do a little more than just had over some money for our room and board by helping them with their harvest, to the amusement of the village.  I’m not sure how much we actually helped but our poor technique surely provided some entertainment.   In the next village of Kargyak we were fortunate enough to stay with another very friendly family, in this case two sisters, one whom was the first in her village to attend college.  Kargyak is the last permanently inhabited settlement before the glaciated slopes of the Shinkul La.  After Kargyak the colorful canyons of Zanskar begin to give way to the gray rock of the Himalayas.  The weather matched the stone.  Icy winds blew down the valleys as the darkened clouds of the monsoon battled the lofty peaks, ending their long journey from the warm waters of the Indian Ocean on the glacier covered rocks of the Himalayas.  As we walked towards those gray peaks shrouded in gray clouds we passed a nomad camp.  One of the women motioned to us and gave us some yak yogurt.  It was delicious.

The tea tent at the base camp of the Shinkul La was cold.  Bone chilling cold.  The wind whipped across the Indian army surplus parachute as the frozen equivalent of mist swirled outside.  I spent most of the afternoon in my sleeping bag hoping for better weather tomorrow on our hike over the pass.  The morning initially gave me hope as large patches of blue sky battled the grayness.  However as we hiked the grayness slowly began to win, and blue patches of sky gave way to an icy onslaught of hail and snow.  Finally, as I waited atop the 5080 m Shinkul La the grayness began to retreat across the peaks reveling glimpses of a view that no doubt would have been spectacular under clear skies but like a subtle strip tease only revealed tantalizing clues of what lay underneath.  The clouds closed in again and we stated down into Lahaul.  Unfortunately the tea tent in Zanskar Sumdo was closed, forcing us to make full use of the tarp for the first time on the trip.  The makeshift tent was small but it worked and fortunately there was no rain or snow.  From Keylong Sonia and I parted ways as she met up with Pancho to continue down towards Manali, while I hopped on a bus back to Leh.

For those who want to do this trek there is more information at my trekking guide Ladakh page

And detailed info on how to do this as a home-stay trek here.

12 comments to Trekking Across Zanskar

  • Hi Micah,
    thanks heaps for your blog!!! Veeery inspiring and exactly what I needed to read in order to feel confident enough to attempt an independent trek like you did (as opposed to doing it luxury all inclusive style with an expensive guide). I love going by myself but never dared go alone in the Himalayas. So your blog is very helpful!
    A couple of questions: Re stove: multi-fuel necessary or gas stove okay (using screw gas cylinders)? Got both at home, so just wondering which one to bring. I prefer the gas stove, less mess and hassle. And what was the coldest temperature you encountered at night (i.e. minus 40 degrees C rated massive sleep. bag necessary or 3 season enough?)? Also, did you have to cross streams / rivers, hence needed sandals or extra shoes for crossings?
    Thanks heaps

  • You can get gas canisters in Leh, other places they are not so easy to find. I actually ended up doing all my treks with dry food. Even though I have a multi-fuel stove now. The across zanskar trek you can do pretty much staying and eating in villages or tea tents the whole time. 3 seasons is enough during the Spring, Summer, or early Fall, minus 40 C is an overkill in anything but climbing mountains in winter. I didn’t bring any extra shoes. As I recall on the zanskar trek there are no tough crossings. On the Markha valley there is at least one where you need to ford but I did it bare foot. Sandals are nice to have for walking around the villages at the end of the day or going to the outside toilet at night, but its also extra weight, so its up to you, I don’t take them personally.

  • Yuval Ronen

    Dear Micah,
    Thanks for the very informative article and wonderful pictures. The idea of embarking on such a trek, leapfrogging from one home stay / chaykhaneh to the other without schlepping tents and other heavy equipment is inspiring. I’m planning do the trek this summer. Please allow me to ask a few questions:
    Is the Padam – Lamayuru leg of the journey feasible in late July? Are weather conditions favourable? In which direction would you recommend to trek, starting in Lamayuru or in Padam? From where did you catch the bus to Padum on the final leg of the journey (the one with the baby yak)? Do you know when the above mentioned bus departs from Padum? How many days should I recon for the whole trip? Are donkeys that could carry luggage available throughout the trek or should they be hired only at the start? How much would such a donkey / mule cost pr. day?
    Thanks in advance for you help, yuval

  • Late July is a good time to do the trek weather wise its the high season so there will be tea tents open the whole way. You can always get unlucky with a storm but typically it should be pretty dry then. I did it from Lamayuru but really as far as difficulty goes either direction has some tough days. If your doing only half then it seems getting in to Padum by bus public transport is slightly easier than getting out. I never went out that way since I hiked on to Darcha. But it really could be done either way. There is a road at least to Phanjilla on the Lamayuru side I think it may even go to Hanupatna now. On the Padum end I recommend either starting or ending in Zangla (a beautiful place) you will have to cross the bridge up river from Zangla I forget exactly what town but it wasn’t on my map at the time. Ask villagers if you don’t find out before. The bus leaves Zangla in the morning and returns (from Padum) in the afternoon.

    You could do it in as few as 11 or 12 Leh to Leh but I’d take more like at least 15 if you have the time, stay a night in Karsha and Lamayuru both nice places but you don’t really have to go through either of them if you are just doing the trek since the road can bypass both places. On donkeys its best to hire them at the beginning if you are going to want them. But sometimes you can get lucky and find a guy on the way to do a few days it you need a rest, a few people I was hiking with did this. About the best you will do is 250 rupees a day per donkey (plus you’ll need to pay for them to go back) but that was the going rate that the travel agents were paying last year. If you are a small group its often tough because the donkey man gets paid per donkey so if he takes more donkeys he gets paid more for the same work, so especially when its busy, and it will be in July, it can be difficult to get a donkey man. Even the travel agents sometimes have a tough time. I had friends that were agents who would be scrambling in the night before they had a trek leaving, to try to find enough donkeys.

  • Yuval Ronen

    Brilliant Micah, thanks a thousand for your help!
    Smiles, yuval

  • Sudhir Kochhar

    Dear Mr. Micah,

    Firstly, please accept my sincere compliments for doing such a great and wonderful job, by posting these details on your website!! A great help to us aspiring travelers. Words of praise are less for this giant effort. Hats off to you !!

    I just completed the EBC TREK (22/4/11 – 9/5/11) at a very leisurely pace and enjoyed the whole trek thoroughly. I’d love to do it again, such was it’s charm ! Faced no problems of AMS, I was also having Diamox, 125 mg morning and 125 mg night. At high and cold places like Gorakshep I took ‘ZOLPIDEM’ for sleep, with good results.

    Now, in July, I planned to do Gurgaon-Manali-Leh-Zanskar-Srinagar-Gurgaon by road, in my Skoda Yeti ‘SUV’ as a driving holiday, but after going through your articles, I think trekking would be a better option, in Zanskar and Ladakh. Allow me to ask you a few questions related to this,

    1. I would like to do the complete ‘Across Zanskar’ trek, as time isn’t a concern, what would be the best itinerary for me? I am solo. Please mention the best and the loveliest places to stay in.

    2. I am scared of paths which are exposed, narrow, and fall into deep ‘khuds’! Will Stok and ‘Chhamser Kangri’ be a concern regarding this fear of mine?

    3. I will spend almost a month and a half here, so which other ‘unforgettable’ treks do you recommend?

    4. As I have some ‘Army’ connections, any special areas that deserve a visit and can be done because of this connection?

    5. Best plan, from Manali, for acclimatization?

    6. As I cannot carry weight, can you recommend some Guide/cook/porter, having a pony? Or a reliable agency who can arrange one, or some friends or acquaintances who would know?

    7. Will I need crampons? I have ‘Black beard’ insulated boots of Salewa. I also have 6 person 3 season Coleman tent, will this be cold because of being big, or okay, and a -2 degrees down filled sleeping bag of Haglofs?

    8. Any point of taking my vehicle with the above plans?

    9. How much would a Guide/Cook charge daily?

    10. You are planning on another trip here? Can we team up?

    I know I’ve aske too many questions, but you only know the area as good as the back of your hand, probably.

    Thank you very much,
    Sudhir Kochhar

    Gurgaon, ( near New-Delhi), India

  • Thanks Sudhir regarding you questions:

    1. I would like to do the complete ‘Across Zanskar’ trek, as time isn’t a concern, what would be the best itinerary for me? I am solo. Please mention the best and the loveliest places to stay in.

    I gave some info here on how to do it as a home stay trek here http://trek.micahimages.com/Ladakh/Across%20Zanskar%20DIY.htm
    But you say later that you will you will hire a pony and guide so then you have more flexibility in where you stay. On the first half Lamayuru to Darcha make sure you stay in Potoskar, and Zangla. Visit Lamayuru as well though I think the road goes up to Hanupata now so walking that stretch isn’t so interesting.

    Around Padmum visit Karsha.

    On the second half visit Phuktal Gompa of course, Tangzen and Kargyak are both nice places but I wouldn’t say it’s a must to stay at Tangzen.

    2. I am scared of paths which are exposed, narrow, and fall into deep ‘khuds’! Will Stok and ‘Chhamser Kangri’ be a concern regarding this fear of mine?

    There is a bit of an exposed ridge at the end of the trek to the top of Stok Kangri, and one side off the peak falls off very abruptly. Chamser Kangri doesn’t have much exposure but it is very very high, so I would recommend you do Stok Kangri or another 6000 m peak before you try that one.

    3. I will spend almost a month and a half here, so which other ‘unforgettable’ treks do you recommend?

    If you do Across Zanskar that will take up 18-20 days, which is a very nice trek. My three favorites would be Across Zanskar for the villages and culture and diversity of scenery. Stok Kangri for the views, and Rumtse to Tso Morri for the remote feel of the region.

    4. As I have some ‘Army’ connections, any special areas that deserve a visit and can be done because of this connection?

    Well I don’t, but I suppose if you could get your self to Sachin Glacier in the Nubra Valley that would be pretty cool.

    5. Best plan, from Manali, for acclimatization?

    I’d Say Manali-Keylong-Leh. (If you have your own car you can break up the long Kelyong Leh stretch at Sachu or Pang)

    1st day in Leh after a night do a bit of walking maybe check out Spituk Gompa then if you feel up to it head up to Shanti Stupa for the sun Set.
    2nd day go to Thiksey Gompa then walk along the flat valley through the fields (not the main road) to Stok.
    3rd day see another Monastery and some sights around the valley (Hemis, or Alchi) walk up to the gompa/fort above Leh Palace for sunset.
    4th-5th day Overnight trip to Pangon Lake (Much better than a day trip), or you could start a trek like Markha from Chilling.

    After either of those you could do Rumste Tso Moriri. Or Stok Kangri. Basically you should be ok if you hadn’t had any symptoms after that first week.

    6. As I cannot carry weight, can you recommend some Guide/cook/porter, having a pony? Or a reliable agency who can arrange one, or some friends or acquaintances who would know?

    As you will know I carry all my own gear so don’t have any pony man to recommend but Showkat is a local Agent who is a fiend he’s knowledgeable, honest, and not a “hard sell” guy, he can help you out if you want to go the agent way:

    7. Will I need crampons? I have ‘Black beard’ insulated boots of Salewa. I also have 6 person 3 season Coleman tent, will this be cold because of being big, or okay, and a -2 degrees down filled sleeping bag of Haglofs?

    Crampons if you plan to do Stok Kangri or Chamser Kangri will help a lot but you can rent them in Leh. I’d recommend good sturdy gortex lined waterproof hiking boots, you won’t need mountaineering boots (not familiar with the ones you mentioned so can’t comment). That’s a big tent, to tell you the truth the only time I have slept in a tent that big is when there were a lot of other people in it. So not sure how cold it would be on your own. But with a good sleeping bag I’m sure you would be fine. Obviously a smaller tent would be better.

    8. Any point of taking my vehicle with the above plans?

    Not having a car in India myself I can’t comment but I always think it would be nice to be able to drive at your own pace. I’m sure there are places in Leh you could leave it while trekking.

    9. How much would a Guide/Cook charge daily?

    Not sure what the rates are these a ponyman gets around 300 per pony may be a bit more now, and I guess a Guide Cook hired independently would run at least 500 a day. That’s what I know some agents paid.

    10. You are planning on another trip here? Can we team up?

    Sorry not planning to head up there this year but I wasn’t last year and I ended up there so who knows.

  • Sudhir Kochhar

    Thank you very very very very very very very….much!!! But your assistance cannot be acknowledged by mere thanks…much much much obliged!!

    Will you post your program if and when you plan to visit? Any other way to be in touch with you, like FB or Yahoo! Messanger or anything else?

    You must let me know if I can ever be of any service to you. I hope you’ll give me an opportunity!

    I extend you an invitation to visit our Tea Estate in Arunachal Pradesh, near the NAMADAPHA NATIONAL PARK, and our Poultry Farm in Tinsukia, Assam. I’ll love to host you!!

    Thank you once more,
    Best wishes and regards!
    Sudhir Kochhar

  • Lloyd Donnelly

    Hi Micah,

    I am so thankful & happy that I’ve discovered your site. I’m trekking Lamayuru to Darcha starting mid August with a Nepali friend. We did Markha Valley in 2012 & last year Upper Mustang in Nepal as well as many other treks in Nepal over a number of years. Your track notes have given me a valuable insight & fueled my anticipation. Great photos too.

    Thank you sooooo much

  • Thanks enjoy your trek and let me know if I can help though its been a few years since I’ve done this trek now.
    happy trekking,

  • hippopo

    hi Micah,

    will the trek be doable in late april/early May? will the trek be snow bound and teahouses open?

  • I’ve never trekked at that time in Ladakh, I would expect there would be quite a bit of snow on the passes. If you do it then you should have camping gear and be prepared to trek in the snow. The tea tents will not be open which means you would also need more food. However it’s likely you could still find places to stay in villages.

    best of luck,

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