We spent four days on the (bumpy) road to reach Padum, the main city of Zanskar Valley in Ladakh, India. And finally we were there, dropped in a T-junction that showed great similarities with sleepy American towns of the Midwest, including the nasty dust and the dry heat. The stares didn’t seem particularly friendly and the people not overly helpful. And we had just been semi-scammed by a taxi driver.
We selected Padum as our next destination without much prior research. The aim was to get away from the tourists that have now invaded many parts of this beautiful mountainous region. We were getting off the beaten track, so to say. But had we made the wrong decision?
Luckily, we found a fairly cheap hotel upon arrival. We were exhausted and after a quick bite in a Dhaba (local restaurant), we headed to bed, hoping for a better impression the following day.
We woke up early to walk to the Karsha Gompa, a Buddhist monastery 11 km away. The road was dull and barren, and still our greetings were mainly responded to with silence. What was up with people here?
But things were about to change. An empty school bus stopped next to us on the road, and the friendly driver offered us a lift. Once there, the Gompa turned out to be beautiful. After a nice lunch in what seemed to be the only homestay in the village, we started to walk our way back to Padum.
Suddenly a sand storm picked up and we couldn’t really continue walking. A car passed, and once again stopped to offer us a lift. The driver was a dentist, working in the governmental hospital. He was really kind and told us what to see and do in Padum. He dropped us of at a rock formation, with Buddhist carvings of more than 800 years ago. We would have never found these by ourselves. A walk through old Padum followed (also his advice). We loved it! Suddenly, Padum started to become a lot more interesting.
And then it happened. We heard music, we heard laughter and before we knew it, we were sitting with a group of older men in a room drinking tea and local barley “wine”, in what were the celebrations of a Ladakhi wedding (although we never actually met the groom or bride). From then on everything worked out for the better and it made us realise the one thing we had been feeling all along this trip, but could not really grasp until we reached Padum:
No matter how beautiful or shitty a place, the (local) people make or break your experience
Because of the kindness of one person, we joined a two day Ladakhi wedding. Shared talks, meals and prayers with Buddhist monks. Were invited for a tour around their monastery, including tea in their homes. Went to the homes of other locals, being invited over for tea. And just like that, in just the short time we were there, we felt part of the community.
We left Padum after three days. Our time in India was running out and we had to start our hike out of Ladakh (more on that in another moment). But we won’t forget the town because of the people we met and the experiences we had with them.
Zanskar valley is part of the Himalayan mountain range, lying in the eastern half of the Jammu and Kashmir region. Two rivers merge between the surrounding snowy peaks creating an impressive landscape, inhabited by a majority Buddhist population that lives in small villages scattered all over the valleys. Due to the high altitude, the area is only accessible by a bumpy road during a couple of months a year, and nowadays, many people move out of the valley to survive the harsh winters.
The Buddhist influence, that was originally brought over from Tibet, has resulted in multiple monasteries, built hundreds of years ago. Together with the surrounding villages they show a distinct vernacular architecture that stands beautifully amongst the barren desert landscape.
The stunning scenery makes the valley popular amongst trekkers. Being one of the most remote areas, Zanskar receives less tourists than other parts of the region. But if visited with time, it offers endless opportunities to experience the traditional Ladakhi lifestyle, whilst walking amongst some of the most remarkable mountains in the world.
When to go?
Like the rest of the region, Zanskar valley is buried deep in snow for great part of the year and mostly inaccessible in the winter months. It is therefore best to visit between June and October, when the temperatures are warmest and access is easiest.
Most people travel to Ladakh by plane, flying directly to Leh. Another popular option is going by road, with the Manali-Leh highway. This one is a bit more though and we found many people online advising against making this trip. Although the road has improved significantly the past year, its average elevation is of more than 4,000m, and passes the Tanglang La mountain pass which is at 5,328m. Needless to say, altitude can be a problem if not taken easy.
Given our preferred choice of traveling by local transport, we decided to go from Delhi to Leh by bus. It was by far the cheapest option. The Himachal Road Transport Corporation (HRTC) bus, costs only 1336 rupees, and leaves from Delhi Kashmiri gate at 14h or 14h30 daily. However, if you choose this option, bare in mind that it involves a two and a half day journey by bus (stopping one of the nights in Keylong, where you will have to find accommodation).
The bus is very basic and will most likely brake you physically. And you take the risk of suffering high altitude sickness (although to be honest this is a risk with any mode of transport unless you somehow manage to make it a 6 day gradual journey). This all sounds like a bit much, and in many ways it is. But if you sit on the right hand side of the bus behind the driver (specifically from Keylong to Leh), you will be rewarded with one of the most stunning journeys possible.
HRTC also offers a more luxurious bus going from Manali to Leh, but it only runs in high season, starting from the beginning of July. See their website for more info (Note: we didn’t manage to book via the website with our foreign credit cards, but they have an app that
worked perfectly does the job). There are many private bus companies going from Delhi to Manali, which you can book online.
Another option to reach Ladakh would be through the Srinagar-Leh highway. If you wish to go directly to the Zanskar valley, this route may be an option by stopping in Kargil. But take our word for it as we didn’t actually encounter anyone that chose this journey option.
Once in Ladakh
We stayed in Leh for a couple of days, to sightsee and relax, but mainly to adapt to the altitude*. Once there, talking to people and analysing our options, we decided to go to Zanskar. Ladakh has so much to see and do, but many things require some prior knowledge and preparation. Leh is a good base to rest and make arrangements. Also, its one of the few places where you can get wifi, so make good use of this and do your research for the days ahead.
*High altitude sickness can give you many problems, from nausea and headaches, to much worse. Read up on it online and prepare yourself a bit before going (drinking water, eating well and resting is important). The best advise is to take it easy, relax, adapt to the height gradually, and don’t do a lot of any physical exercise. No matter how young or fit you are, you may be affected. The first days, even taking a few steps up maybe challenging (we felt like total grandparents). So take it seriously, keep hydrated, eat well and rest.
To reach Padum from Leh (without an organised tour) there are two options. The first is a direct bus, which goes back and forth to Padum twice a week for supplies. We heard that passengers are welcome to hop on if they can find it and know when it goes. It’s a local bus, but doesn’t drive for a bus company. There is no fixed schedule and you’ll have to ask around a lot to be able to figure it out. We can only tell you it exists (trust us, we missed it by just fifty meters, when it passed us in Parkachik).
The bus takes two days and stops in the middle of the night/early morning for a couple of hours in Kargil (at the small bus stand, not the main one), so you’re also able to hop on there (again you’ll have to ask around a lot when it will come).
The second option, and longer one, is going in stages. From Leh there is a bus going to Srinagar that will pass by Kargil, where you’ll have to get off and spend the night. Our bus left at 2pm from the new bus stand in Leh and arrived late in the evening (around 11pm) in Kargil.
We found cheap accommodation for 150 rupees per person. But it was absolutely horrible. It was a shitty night, with rats roaming around in the ceiling and a host that was rather dodgy (attempted harassment for Ale included). We hadn’t planned ahead and a trusted person (local friend of a foreigner we met) told us we could trust the man that had approached us at the station. This is something we would never normally do, and would certainly not recommend. There are other options in the city to sleep in so find yourself somewhere nice and safe beforehand.
Be aware that Kargil is a bit of a shock coming from Leh, where everything is calm and comfortable. Kargil has its fair share of tourists, but the city and its citizens are not as charming and welcoming as in Leh, to say it lightly. Proudly muslim, it is very male-dominated and conservative (we would recommend covering up instantly to try attract less stares). We felt quite uncomfortable during our stay and couldn’t wait to get out of there. In fact, we would have skipped it completely had we known how it was, and will make sure to take an alternative route in the future if we go back, for the same reason.
From Kargil, you can take a taxi directly to Padum (should be no more than 1200 rupees), but we would recommend braking up the journey and stopping along the way. There is one bus going to Parkachik, a small village around one third of the way. The bus will leave from a small bus stand (not the main one) in Kargil at 12 in the afternoon and arrives in Parkachik in the evening. The ticket was 112 rupees each. Try to get seats on the left side, which will have better views.
Although scenic, this bus ride is one of the crazier ones we’ve ever experienced. The bus was full beyond capacity, and stopped plenty in small villages along the way. The road is narrow, full of potholes, and at some points a bit scary. But what was most remarkable to us was the amount of stares. We’re used to being looked at, but Ale just gathered an unprecedented amount of attention (even though she was fully covered).
Parkachik has one government run tourist lodge, called the “Parkachik Alpine Hut”, which has a double room for 400 rupees and a dorm. The views from the porch are very nice. You can get meals and plenty of tea there, and the manager is lovely. It was a welcome break in our journey.
Continuing the journey the next morning, we had to wake up early and walk a bit up the road to the main junction (marked by the precedes of two tea stalls). There is were you can hitch a ride to Padum or to Rangdum (half way to Padum). To do the same, make sure you’re there early, preferably around 6.30/7. Ask the caretaker of the tourist lodge, he’ll tell you where to go and at what time.
If you’re lucky and it passes that day, you can get the Padum bus here. If not, any vehicle will have to do. There are not many rides, so don’t be picky, but ask them before how much it will cost you. Hitchhiking here doesn’t always mean getting a free ride aboard whatever vehicle you can find. It actually often translates into paying a very high amount for the worst seat in some eager taxi driver’s car.
We were naive enough to think we were getting a ride with a lovely family, said thank you a million times, and even gave our only precious mangoes to the driver in appreciation, only to find out we had to pay a ridiculous amount (800 rupees!) for the 2,5h ride to Rangdum.
Rangdum has one hotel and a couple of home stays. The hotel is pricy (or so we heard). We’d recommend asking around for the home stays instead. We found one at the end of the village, one of the last houses on the left side of the road. It was lovely and we highly recommend it. We payed 700 rupees together, including dinner, breakfast and tea. They came up with the price on the spot, and it was much cheaper than what we found elsewhere, so don’t be surprised if it varies a bit when you go.
From Rangdum you’ll have to hitchhike again. Cars will stop at the hotel, so ask around there. Try to get a pickup truck, or anything that doesn’t look like a taxi, as it tends to be cheaper and more of an adventure. The sumo/taxi’s will be around 600 rupees, but I got put in a pickup truck that asked to pay whatever I felt like.
I also got invited during the trip into the home of a relative and had lots of yum food. Meanwhile Ale was just rushed to Padum and left waiting for me with no further information. It takes around five to six hours, depending on what mode of transport you get.
In Padum you are dropped in the junction of New Padum. There are some shops, restaurants and stays around this area, but we recommend walking further in to the old city, which is more relaxed and authentic. There are multiple home stays so ask around a bit for the best price. At the junction there is also a governmental tourist lodge, which normally doesn’t charge that much, but we don’t know the exact amount.
Be aware that Ladakh doesn’t have cellphone reach if you have a prepaid subscription, and that WiFi in Zanskar is a no go. There are a couple of internet shops in Padum, but they have a hefty price per minute, and it is slow (it took Ale three minutes to send two WhatsApp messages to our mums informing them that we were alive).
Download Google offline maps for Zanskar Valley and MapsMe before heading there, and bring hiking maps with you if you intend to walk around. The better you are prepared, the safer the journey will be. Also stock up on cash.
So there you are. This is how we made it to Zanskar valley. If you have any questions or updates about how to get there or what to do, please let us know.