There are many tourist hotspots in India and once you’ve visited them, if you seek more adventure and more wow factor, Zanskar and the Suru Valley is where you’ll find it. For us to get there, we had to stop in Kargil which is, in all honesty, a rather scrappy highway town.
Kargil to Zanskar
Arriving late afternoon in Kargil, we booked seats in a shared jeep bound for Padum, the main town in Zanskar, for 4 am the following morning. After a local recommendation, we found a cheap hotel for the night. In order to make transiting and hiking easier and lighter, we arranged to leave our big bags and other unnecessary items at the hotel until our return.
We sought out a suitable dinner option, which turned out to be a relatively cheap thali in a restaurant most people wouldn’t touch with a barge pole; it passed the test though! It was odd to see practically no women on the streets after dark, but then again that isn’t unusual in a Muslim town. We then sorted ourselves out and got to sleep, ready for our very early alarm call.
We set off, bound for Padum, in a rather cramped jeep with locals. The ride began smoothly but very quickly turned into rough, unpaved road. It would remain that way for the next 200 kilometers or so. By no means was it a pleasant journey.
As the sun was rising we stopped in the small village of Parkachik for breakfast. The morning sun was opening up views of rugged hillsides and beautiful blue skies and the views were only set to get better as we travelled further into the Suru Valley.
As we drove on the all-but deserted road, we passed a glacier cascading down from the nearby mountains. A pit stop was made at Rangdum village and from a distance we were able to see Rangdum Gompa, standing strong despite its evident age.
After a cramped 14 hours we were relieved to finally reach Padum. For the capital of Zanskar, Padum is a relatively small and dusty town. It has one main road where a majority of the shops, hotels and restaurants are.
We were dropped outside of town at a small hotel that the driver presumed we would stay at because he knew the owner; he was wrong! We found our own accommodation but it wasn’t exactly brilliant for the price, seeming very old and uncared for. But we had little option as we didn’t want to walk back into town.
That evening, however, we ventured out for dinner and went to a place recommended by another traveller, which was in a good location on the main road. The Tibetan and Indian food was very tasty and the owner exceptionally friendly. Out of interest we inquired about a room and the one he showed us was much better and cheaper! We arranged to move in the next day.
As morning dawned, we relocated and had breakfast at out new ‘home’. Once we were suitably fueled we went exploring. There isn’t much to see within Padum. But the surrounding scenery is out of this world! The availability of public transport is all but zero so we were reliant on our legs and on the odd occasion, hitching.
We made our way to the village of Pibiting, which is two kilometers north of Padum and home to a gompa and hilltop stupa. It was interesting to see how simply people live out here, where conditions can be harsh and there are no proper medical facilities or other such amenities. With the clear blue sky, sunshine and the relative peace and quiet, it was refreshing to be somewhere so beautiful.
Another excursion was to Karsha Gompa, roughly two-hours-walk from Padum. Sitting above a small village, it is the largest Buddhist monastery in Zanskar and can be seen from quite a distance. Thankfully we were able to hitch a ride there; we then explored the rugged and worn beauty of the 10th century buildings. The scenery from the top was simply amazing!
Once we had returned to town, we ventured a short distance on the Kargil road to the very small village of Sani. This settlement is home to the oldest gompa in Zanskar, a very small two-storey white-washed building. We met a friendly local teenager, who was studying in Jammu and currently visiting his parents; he offered us a ride with them back to Padum, which we gladly accepted.
Trekking to Phuktal Gompa
One draw card of Zanskar is the mysterious Phuktal Gompa (monastery). Located deep in the valley, it is by far one of the most remote places we’ve ever been to. The crumbling building is built within a cave and it sits precariously on the edge looking as if it’s about to fall!
It was recommended to start the 3-day trek slightly further up the road, so we arranged for a taxi to take us to Bardan Gompa. Once we had had a look around, the trekking began. Due to the construction of a roadway, the path was very easy to follow. It wasn’t that busy with traffic so we didn’t share the road with passing cars as much as we had feared.
After walking a few more kilometers, we found Muney Gompa atop a small hill. We had a look around the aging monastery and spoke briefly to a couple of young monks, who offered us some tea.
We carried on our way and reached Raru village, a very small settlement made up of only several houses. Not wanting to break our stride, we went straight through, continuing along the road.
Eventually we saw a sign for Ichar village. Having to go back on ourselves slightly, we found the path leading up to the village from the main road. This place is the epitome of simplicity. The compact village has small patches of crops and houses built in the traditional style. Home to a small gompa, we took the opportunity look around; it was very quiet. Though we didn’t intend to stay, we stopped at one of the homestays, part of a programme to help locals earn a living, and arranged to have lunch.
After the short pit stop, we got back down to the road and met two fellow trekkers, who were also making their way to Phuktal Gompa. We got chatting and decided to continue the journey together. The other couple were far better equipped than us, carrying a tent, cooking stove and food supplies.
They told us that they were completing a 14-day trek! They had started in Lamayuru, had reached Padum and were now moving on through to Darcha, via Phuktal. We knew this trek was possible and their journey sounded fantastic! However, as a sign of the modern times, this trek will soon become obsolete as a road is being built to connect Lamayuru to Darcha. We were now four and trekked together, making for the village of Amnu.
Even smaller than Raru, Amnu village has been pushed back and eroded due to the road construction. We were guided to the only homestay available. The owner was reluctant to take us in because she was already nearing full capacity due to a local wedding party, but she had no choice as it was late and there was nowhere else for us to go. Our two companions pitched their tent nearby and joined us for dinner, which was home cooked, fresh and tasty.
Once morning arrived, we were provided with tea and chapattis for breakfast; soon after we started on our way, there being no point in hanging around. Moving along the valley, the scenery was amazing with blue water cutting through the rock below, wonderful jagged mountain-like cliffs and, every now and then, a small patch of greenery of a settlement on the other side. The landscape was wonderful to walk through.
The advantage of being on flat road was that progress could be made very quickly, so we pushed on, chatting away to our new friends. Eventually, we reached a point where the construction ceased and the ground turned into rough, uneven path. Thanks to an unfortunate wrong turn, we ended up having to carefully scale a very small and frankly sketchy path with lose rock. Thankfully, some members of the Indian army were behind us and they assisted us in our ascent to reach Cha village.
Once we got to the top we stopped on the outskirts of the village and collapsed into a heap, exhausted! Cha itself is beautifully picturesque with lush greenery all around. Simple houses dot the area and life seems very peaceful and still. We made our way through, knowing that we still had a long way to go to make it to Phuktal.
The greenery soon made way for rough path again and we found ourselves walking along a ridge, with a fast flowing river far below. The path was rather narrow so we had to watch our step. Our two friends had gone on ahead at their own pace; we figured that we’d catch up with them at some point.
We eventually caught up with them, and for good reason; they had waited for us because part of the path had been destroyed by a landslide of loose rock and stones! I decided to go first, having to move across the slippery terrain at lighting speed to avoid falling and tumbling down the slope into the river. We all made it across without incident and continued on our way, enjoying the views before us, until we saw the most welcoming sight of all – Phuktal Gompa.
Built within a cave, it looks as though the gompa is tumbling out of the entrance. Despite the evident hive of activity, it still felt incredibly remote. We stopped at the guesthouse, that was part of the monastery, and arranged to have some much needed lunch. Then we went up to see the main attraction.
It is always difficult to know where you’re allowed to go and where is out of bounds when you visit a place like Phuktal Gompa. We made our way slowly around so as not to be in the way or disturb anyone. The ancient buildings had a special energy and spiritual feel about them.
At the time we arrived, the daily puja was about to take place, where the resident monks gather in the main hall for prayers. It is said that within the prayer hall there are murals over 700 years old but, unfortunately, we didn’t venture inside due to the gathering.
Once we’d seen enough we returned to the guesthouse. To our disappointment, the rooms that were available were filthy. Furthermore, the monks who ran it were very rude. We had been warned about this back in Padum. Having their own supplies, our companions decided to pitch up and stay the night and so we parted company. It had been a great adventure with them but now we were back on our own.
Purne to Padum
As it was growing late, we made a swift exit and headed back down the valley on the other side of the river to the village of Purne. Thankfully it was only about 6km away; after some bargaining we managed to find a room in a homestay.
Purne is incredibly small and even though it has a homestay programme, it seemed as though our hosts couldn’t be bothered and didn’t really want us there. Therefore, as soon as dawn broke, we had some breakfast, paid our dues and set off before 7am.
There is something magical about trekking at such an early hour. With the sun still low in the sky, there was an unmatched calm and peace as we make our way along the breathtakingly beautiful route, accompanied only by a herd of yak and their shepherd. Witnessing how simple life can be makes you think of all the urban metropolises around the world and what a stark contrast such existences are.
We carried on, following the river until we found somewhere to cross; however the bridge, suspended high above the river, looked frankly death-defying! Small, old and rickety is was swinging in the breeze. An old lady went past us and began to cross like she had obviously done a thousand times before. We had no choice but to go for it.
I went first, very slowly edging my way along. I tried desperately to keep my balance but as I reached the middle, the ‘handrail’ of wire was too low for me to grasp and the bridge started to sway! I honestly thought that the bridge was going to flip and I was going to plunge into the raging river below. It took a lot of concentration and focus but, eventually, I made it. I collapsed with exhaustion and waited nervously for Lynette to join me.
Reunited, we soon realised that we had another problem; a slope stood between us and the road above. What ensued was a climb come scramble up loose rocks and shingle. As we neared the top, I heard the rumble of a big engine.
I reached the ridge as the truck was passing and frantically waved my arms. The driver, dressed in military fatigues, thankfully stopped and, surprised though he was to see two foreigners emerge from seemingly nowhere, gave us a lift as far as Anmu, where we had stayed before.
By this time, it was still only morning and we wanted to try to make it back to Padum that day. We started walking back along the road and decided to try to hitch, knowing that reaching Padum on foot was impossible in one day, given the 40 odd kilometre distance. If it came to it, we’d make it to Ichar and stay there the night.
We continued on the road, making steady progress for two or so hours, beginning to feel tired and yet knowing there were no upcoming opportunities for rest or refreshments. Suddenly, we heard the rumble of a vehicle and turned to see a 4×4 hurtling down the uneven road; we hurriedly flagged it down.
After a brief discussion, we agreed to pay a small fee and joined the other locals in the shared ‘taxi’, with relief making our way back to Padum. Even though the trek had been an epic adventure, we were glad to complete it and get back to town and a hot shower!
Padum and Around
We arrived back in Padum at around 4pm, which wasn’t at all bad going. We still had a few days planned in the area so once back at our previous guesthouse, we sorted ourselves out and got some rest.
The next morning, we decided to head to the outer-lying village of Zangla, which we managed to hitch a ride to. On route we were able to admire the vast expanse of winding road and barren yet picturesque scenery. The relatively small village is home to a hilltop fortress-palace which was, unfortunately, abandoned long ago and now lies in ruins. However, with the mind’s eye, you can imagine how grand it must once have been.
Another highlight nearby is Stongde Gompa, with good views of the village 300m below. In the village itself there are a number of homestays, but other than that it remains a traditional hamlet. At the far end of the village lies a nunnery, home to friendly nuns and a small prayer room.
Once we had seen all that we had come for, we tentatively began what could have been a very, very long walk back to Padum. We attempted hitching but to no avail, so began walking. We made it out of the village and had walked a couple of kilometres along the main road, when suddenly we heard the rumble of an engine and the crackle of tires on gravel.
We turned to see a shiny white 4×4 coming towards us; with nothing to lose I raised my hand and stopped the vehicle. The passenger agreed to give us a lift. It soon transpired that we were getting a ride with none other than an electoral official from the Indian Government! We happily chatted with him and his younger associate until disaster struck – a flat tyre!
As we all disembarked for the problem to be fixed, we were assured time and again that the driver was a professional and maintained the vehicle “very properly”, as our new friend put it. Tyre replaced, we continued back to Padum.
On arrival and as we made to say goodbye, our new friend cheerfully insisted on having a drink with us. “Come! We will have tea,” he said. Not wanting to be rude, we accepted his offer and continued to chat over chai.
On our final day in this remote area, we found none other than the driver who had brought us here a week or so ago. Again, he was looking for people to go back to Kargil the next day (yet again at silly o’clock in the morning!) We made the arrangements with him and set off for a final look around the immediate area.
First stop was the wreckage of an Indian Air Force helicopter that had landed in the field long ago and had just become ‘part’ of the landscape. We then visited Jama Masjid, the only mosque in town, on the road heading out towards Anmu.
Also in that direction, hidden away off the road, we came across Padum Old Town, a small cluster of atmospheric crumbling buildings that is still lived in today. The old town gompa, which has a slightly forlorn yet antiquated feel to it, is perched on a small hill overlooking the whole area.
Zanskar is quite possibly the remotest corner of India. Walking around this quiet region with breathtaking views all around makes one reflective and believe that among the chaos of modern life, there are still parts of the world where true peace and simplicity can be found.
We left for Kargil at 4am the following morning to be flung back into the crazy chaos of India, leaving behind only our footprints as evidence of our presence in this beautiful part of the world.
Be sure to read more about this amazing part of India in our post – India: Seeing the Best of Ladakh