The Zanskar Range is a mountain range that separates Zanskar valley from Ladakh - Northern India. The average height of these mountains is about 6,000 meters (19,700 ft) and snowfall in the high passes completely blocks the entrance to Zanskar valley in the winter months. Leaving the people that live here completely isolated from the outside world for up to 6 months out of the year. Every year.
When I asked one of the locals what they did in those long winter months - he gave me a cheeky grin and laughed: ‘make babies’! He further explained to me that they worked every day for long hours in the summer months and then sit back and relax in the winter months.
Their lifestyle and way of living is completely adapted to the harsh conditions they have to deal with. Communities are strong and visitors are welcomed with open arms. These were the ingredients that led to an absolutely unforgettable experience in one very remote place in the world.
Getting to Zanskar Valley
At this moment, it’s only possible to get to Zanskar Valley with a vehicle from the North Side - through the town of Kargil. A new road is being constructed, connecting the south part of the valley with Manali in Himachal Pradesh. But as most things in India, things move slow and it will take some more time to construct the necessary bridges. So for now, the only access remains via Kargil.
Kargil is a rather unremarkable, typical crowded and congested Indian town. Perhaps the only interesting part is that it’s very close to the border with Pakistan. Some 11 kilometres from Kargil, you can visit the abandoned ghost-town of Hunderman.
This small village was part of Pakistan between 1947 and 1971 and was then taken by India during the 1971 Pakistan - India war. Many of the villagers fled to Pakistan, but the ones that stayed behind, became Indian civilians overnight. In 1974, a primary school was constructed in the upper part of the valley and the remaining villagers abandoned Hunderman and moved to the new settlement around the primary school.
There is a museum with personal belongings of the original inhabitants on display. But the main attraction here is in fact a small stall on the side of the road towards Hunderman. You can rent binoculars here to peek at Pakistani soldiers on the mountain at the other side of an invisible border.
Seriously? Yes - welcome to India!
On route to Padum
Padum is the capital of Zanskar, but still, only some 1000 people live here. Starting from Kargil, it’s a 250-kilometer journey to reach Padum. You’ll first pass through beautiful Suru valley. The villages in this valley, which are dotted amongst the greenery and snow-capped mountains, have a Muslim majority. This changes when you venture further into the valley, where the majority of the locals practice Tibetan Buddhism.
On route, you’ll pass small villages with the typical Zanskar houses. I can highly recommend staying in these villages and spend the night in the houses of the locals. The homestay are cheap and a great way to connect and learn about the people. Don’t expect luxury though. The ‘toilet’ is a hole in the ground, you’ll sleep on the floor on thin mattresses and you’ll sit on floor cushions in the kitchen for the meals.
But having a sneak peek into a traditional house here was one of the highlights of my trip! Even though communication can be though as not everyone speaks English, the locals will go out of their way to try and get their message across!
Most people who do travel into Zanskar, don’t explore it beyond Padum. And they are missing out on the gem of the valley! Travel another 40 kilometers on a tiny (and quite terrifying) road to the village of Cha - put on your hiking boots and hike 2 hours to the remote Buddhist Phuktal Monastery.
From the distance, Phuktal Monastery looks like a honey comb glued to a hill. In Zanskari language, “Phuk” means cave and “Thal” means at leasure. Built within and around a natural cave, the monks quarters appear to be spilling out of the cave. It is believed that 16 prime followers of Buddha were the first residents of this cave - and the images of these 16 Arhats can be found on the cave walls. They chose this place for its perfect setting for meditation and spiritual growth.
I couldn’t agree more!
As you can only reach this monastery by foot, not many people make it here. You are more likely to encounter buddhist monks on the way to the monastery than tourists, as 70 monks call this place home.
Horses and donkeys are used to bring supplies to the monastery in the summer months, and in winter times, they are transported by traveling over the frozen Zanskar River.
The Phuktal Monastery also has a traditional Tibetan medical clinic - which is of vital importance to the local community. The village life revolves around the monastery, with villagers paying visits to the Amchi, a traditional Tibetan healer who uses natural Sowa-Rigpa medicines. In turn, monks that live at the monastery often come down to the villages to attend weddings, funerals and traditional prayer ceremonies.
I met one of the monks while I was admiring the monastery from a distance and we did an entire photoshoot together. They are definitely not camera shy!
Culture of Zanskar
Every year, Zanskar festival is celebrated in Padum. This two-day festival showcases the best cultural traditions of the people of Zanskar. All people, -men, women, young and old perform and it draws a big crowd from all over the valley.
Traditional singing, dancing, sword-fighting, yak and horse performances - it’s all there. The most delicate and beautifully ornamented clothes are being worn. Especially the typical headdress, called Perak, worn by the women stands out. It’s made from a strap of leather and decorated with large semi-precious stones such as turquoise and lapis lazuli.
It is a symbol of status and shows the rank and economic status of the woman who is wearing it. The number of rows of turquoise indicates her status - from nine rows for the queen of Leh (the capital of Ladakh) down to three for the lowest classes.
The stones themselves represent Ladakh deities that are believed to protect and guide the person who wears them through the danger-filled human world.
The valley is teeming with wildlife too. Stop your vehicle and be quiet for a while, and wild marmots will come out of their homes and have a peek at you! Blue sheep (bharal), ibex, wolves and the snow leopard also roam around here. Chances of seeing a snow leopard are extremely slim, but you might see their foot prints!
Besides the wild animals, herds of domesticated yak, goats and horses are moved around by nomadic herders. Especially the yak is very important to the people of Zanskar. They are used to plough the land, carry heavy loads, thresh the grain and their dung is used as fertiliser and as fuel for cooking. They provide milk is used to make cheese and their fur is turned into ropes, carpets and different types of clothes.
I spend one night sleeping on the floor in a homestay, right next to a blanket with drying yak cheese. The smell was pungent to an extent it almost made me vomit, but the end-product is rich and delicious. Really - I promise you!
Motorbike adventures and the people of Zanskar
For some unexplained reason, just making it to Phuktal Monastery still wasn’t enough adventure for me. I decided to ride into Zanskar valley alone. On a motorbike. Pretty much everybody said it couldn’t be done. Not alone! Even the locals were eye-balling (but also high-fiving me) wherever I went. Some told me I had lost my mind..
With so little traffic, or in general - other people around - it was quite the challenge. I got wheels-deep stuck in mud, got stranded without fuel twice (long story but that wasn’t really my fault - fact.) and dropped the bike twice riding on the wrong tiny road up a steep mountain.
But no matter what trouble I ran into - locals rushed to my rescue. A goat herder pushed my bike out of the mud when I got stuck. One man went on a quest around his entire village to find me some fuel. Another man gave me hot chai when I was exhausted and prepared hot water to bath myself. A car full of Buddhist monks came running when they saw me sitting next to the bike when it had fallen over.
I rode straight through a sandstorm, endured vertical rains, sunshine and rainbows. The road was bumpy, potholed, steep, rocky, sandy, narrow and scary. It was a magnificent adventure, and I would do it all over again within a hear-beat!
Explore this gorgeous and remote valley - before it gets discovered by the rest of the world!