Zanskar - A solo Pilgrimage

A ride to an isolated region in Ladakh and see a piece of virgin land- that was one secret agenda I had when I planned my Leh ride. And Zanskar happened to be the ideal location for my pilgrimage. An isolated valley in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by mountains, less explored by tourists, a beautiful and peaceful valley to experience the real peace of mind- That is Zanskar.
Area: 5000 square Km
Road Access: June mid till Oct mid

Place and people
Zanskar lies south- west of Leh and south- east of Kargil. As of now this is the most isolated valley in Ladakh surrounded by mountains and the only road to reach there is from Kargil which is one of the toughest in the region with 240km of gravel/sand roads with lots of water crossings.

With less than 1500 population, Padum is the administrative headquarter of Zanskar. Apart from few places closer to Kargil there are no options for even food or water on the way to Padum.

More than 50% of Zanskar population is Buddhists, but Muslim population is very close to that of Buddhists’. People here are warm and friendly in approach and trust the stranger travelers. The reason probably is that the kind of travelers come to Zanskar today are different from other parts of our country.

My host family had this story to share with me. 21years ago one trekker from Europe (I forgot his name) visited Zanskar on foot from Lamayuru. He came back next year and started a school at Padum. That is the most prestigious school in the region now. Last year 20th anniversary was celebrated; the founder couldn’t come due to old age though. Many Padum kids are sponsored by travelers to Zanskar and their associates.

In winter when the roadway is blocked, the best option to reach the outside world is to walk the frozen Zanskar River and reach Nimmu and Leh.
And thankfully people are not literally isolated even in the winter. In case of a medical emergency district administration can even initiate an airlift.

There are two valleys to be covered in this route. First one is Suru which starts at Kargil and ends at Penzi La (155km from Kargil). There it is the beginning of the Zanskar valley.

If I describe the route from Kargil to Padum with Km readings it can be like this:-

000 Kargil
041 Sankoo
072 Panikhar
092 Parkachik
124 Rangdum village
130 Rangdum Gompa
145 Beginning of climb to Penzi La
154 Beginning of Zanskar valley.
156 Penzi La Top
161 Drang-Drung Glacier and beginning of descent to Zanskar valley
173 Beginning of Abrang region
193 End of Abrang region
215 Ating hanging bridge and check post
225 Tungri (Bridge to west side of Stod river)
230 Sani
239 Padum
(Readings as per my bike’s odo)

View Larger Map

Ride Preparation
Zanskar ride is a detour from Kargil. To and fro distance is 480 km. Adding the detours from Padum, the total distance from Kargil to Kargil will be 700km+ (I did 715km). During this ride there is no scope for petrol or spares or mechanics until you reach back at Kargil. The road condition is pretty bad. No tarmac except hardly 15 km found at Parkachik and another 15 km found after Padum on the way to Zangla (bumpy Zangla tarmac is not in good shape though).

The road is not impossible to ride anywhere. But there are challenges. It’s all about knowing the conditions and be prepared.

Few challenges:-
1. Riding gravel/sand road with uneven and unpredictable surface for a no. of days.
2. Riding the bike with the extra dead weight of the additional 15 ltrs of fuel and the extra care to protect the petrol cans. If you damage one and lose fuel, your trip is cut short. Anyway I carried a fourth can as spare, never used it though. (getting fuel at Padum in black market depends on pure luck)
3. The unpredictable water crossings- Those at the Zanskar side are relatively easier compared to the ones at the Sure valley side. At suru valley side you will see mother of all the water crossings you have encountered in the entire Ladakh. Some with depth and some with heavy current and some are combination of both. The challenge is more on the way back. Suru valley will be cleared during afternoon and that is the time when the glaciers melt more contributing more water to these streams.

Few Tips:-
1. Motorcycles condition should excellent. The shock absorbers are going to take all the beating thought the ride.
2. Rider should be comfortable doing rough road for longer periods with extra load. Unless you ride very slowly, the duration you need to be on foot pegs is obviously more in this route. So better be prepared physically.
3. Riding with a pillion is the last thing you would want to do.
4. Keep an extra jerry can. In case if one of the cans cracks/breaks, the spare one will be your savior, or else your journey is cut short.
5. Your natural instincts will take you diagonally through the heavy current water crossings.
6. I followed a strategy of keeping two cans of petrol (10ltr) untouched till the morning I started my return ride to Kargil. How much ever I burn there, as long as I have those cans saved for the final day, my ride is safe. Those precious things were kept safe inside my room till I saddled up for the return.
7. Keep food parceled.

The ride
My bike was loaded a bit heavy with the additional fuel cans. Two cans on each side close to the side box and the third one and the spare one on top of the rear carrier. The rear carrier one slightly altered the CG, but was manageable. Riding a terrain like this is a very different experience. Stones hit the mud guard and silencer quite often and the central stand itself hits stones making huge sound. The smell of petrol fumes trying to escape from the cans is always there in the air. I wished that the shock absorbers withstand the impact till the end of this ride. Eyes are in full caution and body is fully alert. I did not even want to think about a break down- not even a puncture and I was lucky enough to complete the ride without any. This is the summary of my ride experience.


August 21st, I had an early stop at Panikhar and halted at Mr Ali’s guest house. That was a very much needed halt for me to do some laundry. Panikhar has a J&K tourist banglove and a couple of guest houses around. Stay would be in Rs.100 range.

If there is no plan for a halt at Panikhar, the village could be bypassed. After the police check post close to Purtikchey there is a left turn that bypasses Panikhar and Tangole and land up at Parkachik. One big advantage is that you can ride the only tarmac stretch of around 10 km in this route.

22nd August- I geared up comparatively early that day and started rolling in the excitement of hitting Zanskar.

On the way from Panikhar to Rangdum and even further the great mountain pair NunKun is visible on your right side (south). The day I rode to Zanskar it was too misty for a good view and I am not sure which ones I saw were NunKun. I never found anyone to ask either.

Rangdum Gompa
This gompa is in Suru valley, 130 km from Kargil. Ragdum gompa has around 50 inmates. The prayer books at the gompa are more than 250 years old and are brought from Tibit, says the monk who accompanied me. There is a school nearby for future monks. I met few kid monks. All are naughty types. It will take more time for them to become real monks.

Penzi La
This wasn’t just another mountain pass. At all the high altitude passes we cross in the routes connecting main tourist places there will at least be a small crowd clicking, chilling, admiring, relaxing etc. Penzi La turned out to be a very different Pass crossing. There’s no colorful stone marking the height and place with distances, but a very basic pwd board and a bunch of old and dirty prayer flags tied to the board. There wasn’t any human or inhuman being around and the cloudy sky and fogy atmosphere added more to the solitude feeling on top of this high altitude pass.

Drang-Drung Glacier
It’s just another 5 km from fthe Penzi La top we get to see the magnificent view of this beautiful glacier. Drang-Drung is considered as the second largest glacier in Ladakh after the mighty Siachen. Stot River originates from this glacier and gives us company till Padum till it becomes Zanskar River.

Zonkhul Gompa can be visited on the way to Padum if the man and machine are still feeling mentally and physically healthy. There is a hanging bridge at the Ating police check post that takes you to the west side of the river to Ating village. From there the road goes further west to the cave gompa. The hanging bridge will welcome you with a violent swing when you reach the middle of it. I’m not sure if that was a welcome or a protest against the excess weight. The climb to the gompa is a combination of different challenges as in a computer game. Loose and sharp gravel at one mountain face, big round white rocks leveled for a path at the next stage and most of the times steep grandniece remains as a common factor to other challenges.

The gompa is a worth a visit. It is built on the rock face. Almost all the rooms inside has rock faces. Even the statues are places on rocks carved on the mountain faces. The drinking water source is the water dripping from a rock slit. The guest book reveals that this gompa hardly gets visitors from the outside world because of the remote location and toughest approach road.

There are two cops on duty near the gompa and one of them even accompanied me to show places at the gompa. West side to Zonkhul there is a walkway that reaches the east side of the infamous Doda district. Once few terrorists came through this walkway and tried to mingle with the local monks and that created a big mess resulting in deaths of few monks and cops. From then cops stay at this post to prevent such mishaps.

After coming back to Ating village I tried a shortcut road to Sani. But better avoid this one. The stream and pool crossings in this shortcut were too much for the day. Some areas are sand dunes too. This combo challenge gives an out of the planet ride feeling. To add fuel to fire all the action is happening when the daylight is absolutely absent. Finally it was 8:30 when I reached Padum.

Sani Gompa, 9 km before Padum, too can be visited on the way to Padum or on the way back. It is on the roadside and is on the ground. Yes, it is not on any mountain top. Even I was a bit surprised to see one gompa on ground.

I visited the gompa on my way back for obvious reasons. While on my way to Padum it was around 8 at night when I reached Sani. So the main objective was to reach Padum asap and find a place to stay.

Stay at Padum
After my late entry into the town, I was lucky to find Mr. Tashi in the town who owns Chang Tang Guest house in the middle of the town, not noticeable from the road though. There are few guest house options at Padum in Rs.200 range. Tashi's guest house is an extension to his own house and his family stays there. It was my luck to have this opportunity to stay with Tashi family. They are people who speak from their heart and treat you like a family member. They will not let you feel like going back from their place. Tashi runs a restaurant too, but was closed for some reason at the time of my visit. But I did dine at their family dining area.

Day2 - Detours from Padum
Padum – 15 - Stongde – 26 – Sangla
Few kms of this route is tarmac, but is very tricky. Apart from the bumpy surface there are unexpected pockets left with no tar and in very bad shape.

Fully broken road or fully conditioned road is bliss, but a good looking road with bad pockets is ‘Trap’. Several times I had to jam breaks.

Stongde Gompa
is literally in heaven. It’s a real steep 3km climb from Stongde village. Anyways the view from the top is priceless- Stongde village and Zanskar river with the mountains and glaciers in the background.

And same as in other Zanskar gompas, I was invited for tea. The road from Stongde goes further to Zangla that was once the end of this road. But now we see the road goes further and one day it will meet Nimmu at Leh side.

Zangla has a beautiful river bed to spend time and relax. There is a bridge to cross to the north side of the river and there is the option to come back to Padum through the villages including Karsha, visiting some more gompas. But I decided to head back the same way. How many gompas can I digest!

Padum – 10 – Karsha
Karsha Gompa is the biggest one in the region. It’s on a mountain face seen from a distance- even from Padum. There is ridable road till the entrance of the gompa. The view from top of the gompa is amazing. A very vast region is visible with the glaciers on the opposite side of Padum and view of many small villages here and there.

When I headed to Karsha gompa in the after noon, it was a bit cloudy and the wind speed was on the higher side. The dusts that dance with the wind made things worse for the ones who trek. Two foreigners on trek had to make parda like things with their towels to cover face.

I had a quick visit at the gompa and came back at the guest house before sunset.

Padum – 05 – Stagrimo Gompa
By the time I came back from Karsha, my host Montek was back from school. She was more than happy to accompany me to Stagrimo Gompa, close to Padum. I did not have to search for this place or put in much effort for communication with the monks.

The activity attracted me there was construction of a new gompa. It’s been happening for some years. Basically nothing much is happening at construction side. But it’s all the paintings inside that take time. One monk on duty said one side of the wall took an year for completion. All the minute details are done with hands. They are working hard to finish the second wall before this winter.

Day3 – Detours from Padum
Padum – 10 - Bardan – 08 – Munu -06- Reru
Today (Sunday-school holiday) also Montek hung around with me. We had one more company- her cousin Chottu.

10km South of Padum is Burdan gompa. It is placed on top of small mountain (or should I say a big rock) by the side of Lunak river. It’s a very scenic location.

The monks of this gompa are very hospitable. They made me drink tea and then offered food too. We had parceled food and couldn’t accept their offer.

The road further is scenic. Villages ahead do not seem to have seen much of outside life. Everyone is working on fields.

Reru is the last point we can ride to as of now. The extension of this road will one day reach Darcha.

Village visit at Karsha
September is the beginning of harvesting season and all the villagers are in that mood. I was lucky enough to visit one very small village near Karsha. There is no road to this village. If a vehicle has to come there it has to make its own way. My host navigated me through a ridable path. It is her father’s village. She took me to one house there. That was one unexpected chance to visit a typical Ladakhi house that has not been changed much with time.

The first activity I noticed in that village was threshing of grains by having cows and baby yaks walked over the harvest. From the front one wouldn’t be able to see who controls the pack of animals. When one semicircle is complete I saw a short figure, shorter than the shortest of the cows in the group, hardly 10 years old doing the job with full josh. What an energy that kid has!

I kept on watching that small jockey until the job was taken over by one adult. By then the lady of the house arrived from the field and I followed her to inside the house. Though slightly modified, it still sustained the features of an old Ladakhi house. Most of the windows are very small in size- hardly 1ft x 1ft. small entrance door and narrow corridor to the living area, traditional methods to circulate hot air in winter etc.

I was treated as good as she could with ‘namkeen’ tea and regular tea with snacks.

Day 4 – Return from Zanskar
This is the hardest part of the ride- Return from the place. I started from Padum at around 8:30 and visited The Sani gompa on the way back. Apart from this stop Drang-Drang glacier was the only plac I stopped. I was back at Kargil by around 4 after a long break for food at Sankoo.

How many days for Zanskar?
Two days are necessary for the to and fro rides. And for the detours at Padum another two days are ideal. But if you really wish to have the gompa visits and photography in detail, then better stay longer.

I initially had plan to halt for only one day at Padum and then extended for one more day when I found out that spending time at places makes big difference.

The Future
Now most of the travelers to Zanskar are foreigners who are keen on trekking and mountaineering. Ride to Zanskar is a ride through the heart of paradise. No one bothers you from your opposite side or behind. On your own, away from all hassles, taking terrains paved by nature and not much rearranged by man… to reach a place which is more isolated that the valleys you have covered… it’s a ride to isolation. The more you ride into the valley the more you go away from the outside world.

This is the story of today’s Zanskar.Constructions of two roads are underway to save (!) Zanskar from isolation. One follows the Zanskar River till Nimmu that makes it the shortest way to Leh. The distance to Leh would be mere 168km after the completion of this road (Note that currently it is 490km with half of the distance on gravel/sand roads).

The second one is to Darcha which will make Keylong –Padum approximately 200km. Anyway the construction of this one seems to have been stuck at a place called Reru, just 23 km from Padum. But the first one is way past Zangla. Around 20km or more have been tarred too. Scheduled completion of the roads is supposed to be 2008/2009. But the small window of 4 months is what GREF (General Reserve Engineer Force is part of BRO- Border Roads Organisation) have to do the job every year. It looks like it will be few more years before opening the gates of this beautiful valley to the mad crowd.

Visit this place if you really want to see this place in its real beauty- if you are a real traveler/rider.


--xh-- said...

A dream ride... :)

Kam said...

Kudos to you for putting so much efforts in collecting, compiling and putting it so nicely over here.

Bookmarked ;)

Cheers n Ride safe!

jsr said...

cool man nice read!
why is this blog a little serious one? Did we miss something :)


balachandran v said...

Good write-up of a great ride, Jo! Congrats for both! The very matter-of-fact, objective narration could be used as the backbone of a longer, deeper story of your inner experiences... Mind if I add something? I did a Kargil - Panikkar- Parkachik - Suru Valley - Rangdum Gompa trek long ago - 20 years to be exact! We crossed hills, walked through between Nun-Kun peaks... wearing old 'Hunter' boots and carrying an Army haversack, it was tough... but when you are young, you like them tough...

Nomadic Trails said...

kewl one dude!! Good information!

Chandra said...

Seems that you are treasuring this experience... Good one!

bishu said...

Dude its a Dream ride...its very helpful post for preparing for my dream ride!!!

Osscat said...

Interesting to read your account of your journey to Padum.

My friend and I journeyed from Kargil to Padum on a 750 BMW in June 1981 it was a fantastic journey which everyone told us at that time could not be done.


It is such a wonderful place I will never forget.

Peter Dewhurst

Osscat said...

Interesting to read your account of your journey to Padum.

My friend and I journeyed from Kargil to Padum on a 750 BMW in June 1981 it was a fantastic journey which everyone told us at that time could not be done.


It is such a wonderful place I will never forget.

Peter Dewhurst

Biker BT said...

A cherishable trip indeed! Happy New Year 2009 !Interesting read and good pics !

Cheers !