Get set for a photographic journey to the Zanskar Valley, Ladakh, India.

Setting off with the Zanskar Valley as our first destination

Still pool reflections in the Zanskar Valley
This series of stories is a reflection on our time in the Zanskar Valley. Like the top of the mountain hidden from view in this photo, there are many hidden gems to be found here

Six travel companions from NZ and the USA, along with our Indian travel friend Suresh see Suresh’s website here along with our driver and local guide set off towards the Zanskar Valley for six days of travel and exploration. This route takes us alongside, at least part of, the famed Indus River which originates in the Tibetan plateau near Mt Kailash and greets the ocean in the Arabian Sea at Karachi (Pakistan) having travelled 3,610km. We have two overnight stops planned before we drive up the Zanskar Valley and this way we can enjoy the amazing landscapes, monasteries and village life that is set to fascinate our quest for cultural experience. The long drive up the Zanskar Valley on a narrow rough road will take us all day; however this will allow us to enjoy the scenery and surroundings at slow speed, stopping for lunch and tea in ancient Ladaki villages. We stop at the confluence of the Zanskar and Indus rivers and longingly look up the Zanskar river where later, way in beyond these mountains, we will meet it again. Our local travel guide tells us that in winter the river freezes over and becomes the quickest route to the Zanskar valley – no road goes that far via the river valley route. Travellers do sometimes come in winter to experience the frozen river, but due to the weather conditions this is a difficult trip and not recommended. The confluence is also an area for the sport of white-water rafting and trekking – off the beaten track.

Ladakh Map
Ladakh map
Confluence of Zanskar and Indus Rivers
Stark and beautiful, looking up the Zanskar river from the confluence with the Indus

Monument to the founder of Sikhism

We make a stop at Pathar Sahib Gurudwara – the monument to the Sikh Guru Nanak Dev who was a great traveller and friend to the Buddhists. Many soldiers and civilians visit here daily and we are able to see the famous stone impression before sitting to witness one of the priests chanting and blessing a new framed photo that he places by an altar. An important Sikh pilgrimage area built at 12,000ft in 1517, the stone impression has an interesting story and history and was discovered during road construction in the late 1970s Read more here

The sacred rock at the Gurudwara Sikh Temple
The sacred rock with two Sikh soldiers visiting

Alchi village and monastery complex

Driving on, we take a detour across the Indus river where the bridge is heavily adorned with prayer flags. Down the road, we visit Alchi monastery. This old town and monastic complex of gompas and buildings, designed and built in the traditional local Ladakhi style, date back to the 10-11th century. They hold some unique statues, old wall paintings maintaining an artistic and spiritual detail that is both Buddhist and Hindu in style. The wood carvings are said to be done in a baroque style and, both these and the paintings, are some of the oldest in Ladakh.

Alchi
Baroque style wood carvings on the outer of one of the gompa’s at Alchi monastery

The biggest surprise in Alchi was the exceptional food and coffee at the ‘Alchi Kitchen’ owned by local woman Nilza Wangmo, runner-up in the Ladakh Entrepreneur awards mid-2017. Nilza sat and talked with us for some time about the local history. We enjoyed our local apricot juice, coffee and speciality dish of apricot and chocolate momos. You can get more of a taste for Alchi Kitchen on TripAdvisor Read more here, Facebook, Instagram and twitter. Nilza is a great example of how Alchi may seem a remote place but one that is readily connected to the world. She employs local Alchi women in the open kitchen that offers both great food and Ladakhi cooking lessons. Nilza tells us she is Buddhist and shows us her impressive collection of statues in her personal meditation room in her house nearby.

Nilza
Nilza on the balcony of her restaurant, Alchi Kitchen

Ule: Eco-village and the deep gorges beyond

We stop overnight at Ule eco-resort and fruit orchard surrounded by mountains eroded by harsh weather and time. The Indus river flows far below on its way to Kargil where it will turn south and head towards the ocean. Beautiful and peaceful I enjoy a traditional ayurvedic massage with two women massaging at the same time followed by ‘Shirodhara’ (warm oil running onto my forehead). Sublime!

Ule
Ule, organic retreat with apple and apricot trees, fresh vegetables, massages and lovely serene surroundings

Moonland and Lamayuru

 

Moonland cliffs
The mud-cliffs of Moonland with the river far below
Lamyuru
Seated atop a high rock, and the surrounding township, Lamayuru Monastery is both old and breathtakingly beautiful.

Leaving the banks of the Indus and travelling through deep gorges, with sheer rock walls creating immense beauty, we pass by the spellbinding landscape of ‘Moonland’. This ‘broken mud-cliff’ like landscape, which is said to closely resemble the moon, rises out of the deep gorge to meet the vast expanse of deep blue sky. Lamayuru monastery is just around the corner and is enclosed in the vast ‘moonscape’. Lamayuru gompa (meditation hall), brightly coloured and decorated in the traditional Tibetan style, sits alongside a cave where in ancient times great meditators such as Naropa meditated. The cave and gompa hold a special energy for visitors. We meditate for a while and enjoy the very old collection of stupas alongside where traditionally dressed older ladies and men sit with their prayer wheels and malas, reciting mantras. They readily accept money as a thank-you for allowing us to take their photos. Their smiles tell a thousand stories that spoken language can never guess at. The landscape changes again as we rise up the Fotu La Pass – 4,108m (13,478ft) with its twists and turns and convoys of army trucks on this highest point on the Leh-Srinagar road.

Lamayuru Monastery with Moonland in back
Lamayuru Monastery with Moonland in back with the village below as the foreground road snakes up the hill towards the Fatu La pass (4091m)

 

Stupa's at Lamayuru
Rising towards the sky, these ancient stupa’s – known in Ladakh as chortons, are surronded by stones carved with the Om Mani Padme Hung. Powerful Buddhist monuments to the enlightened mind.
Ladies at Lamayuru
Lovely older Ladakhi ladies chanting mantras and spinning prayer wheels used in Tibetan Buddhist practice

 

Moonland near Lamayuru
Standing on the side of the road, the deep ravine just a step away, Manfred enjoys the amazing natural formation of Moonland and the river valley below

Namika-La pass and Mulbekh

Along with more army convoys, we zig-zag over the Namika-La pass 3,720m (12,139ft) before stopping at Mulbekh 3,304m (10,839ft) where we view the 9m high standing statue of the Maitreya Buddha (Buddha to come) carved into the rock. The statue is said to date either from the early 1st or 2nd centuries, the time of the Kushan Empire or as late as the 8th century (dated by modern scholars). This monolithic sculpture is impressive in its roadside, easily accessible location on the Leh – Kargil highway. Adjoining, is a small monastery which houses many great wall paintings and statues and overlooks the now main road which used to be an ancient trade route.

Nambika La Pass
We drive over several high passes, this is the beginning of the Namika La Pass where convoys of army trucks snake up the mountain making for a very interesting sight in this harsh treeless land
Mulbekh
Kartik’s (white blessing scarves) hang on a line in the small courtyard below the Maitreya Statue at Mulbekh

Kargil and beautiful countryside that leads us therE

We drive on through the beautiful mountains and valleys enjoying the sights of the local villages and the richly fertile farmland harvested in preparation for winter, and the local Ladaki houses, laden with drying grass to feed the stock over the cold harsh winter. We overnight in Kargil, a small city nestled in the Himalayas and sitting on the Indo-Pakistan ‘Line of Control’. It has an interesting chequered history of rule dating back centuries prior to the partition in 1947 and the war that separated the nation.

River valley village and palace above
Green fertile river valleys sit among the stark rocky high hills and peaks, typical Ladakhi houses sit along the road and as the fields are harvested, they form a patchwork of gold and green, a stunning view as we twist and turn our way out of the valley
Palace and monastery on road to Kargil
The palace and monastery above the village in the valley below

Driving the Zanskar Valley

In the early morning, we drive alongside the Suru River which is a powerful tributary into the Indus River. This very green fertile valley, which provides two crops per year, stretches for a long way until we start to climb above the greenery at 3,000m (9,843ft) as we head south to Rangdum where the vistas are more stark and craggy and the Nun-Kun mountains and glaciers provide the canvas we have been waiting to see.

Zoomed to capture the mightiness of the glaciers and peaks
It might be a zoomed photo but the power of these mighty high peaks, up to 5-6000+ meters are powerful and imposing. We are wowed as we drive up this amazing valley
Glaciers in the Zanskar
The higher peaks are shrouded in cloud, but the glacier cascades down the valley behind the ‘hotel’ tea stop by the river.

Enjoying the high mountain scenery we drive towards the gateway to the Stod Valley in the Zanskar and as we cross the Penzi-La pass 4,401m (14,436ft) we ogle the breathtaking beauty of the mountain peaks and amazing glacial formations that hang high between the blue/black peaks or flow right down to the river valleys below. The most spectacular glacier is the Drang Drung with an average elevation of 4,780m (15,680ft) on the eastern side of the Penzi-La, it fills the wide valley which curves and flows about 23km right down into the Stod Valley, the Stod River, into the Zanskar river and, finally, into the Indus River.

Darung Drung Glacier
This mighty glacier captured our attention during research for this trip. Its mightiness awed us and many photos were taken

The road is rocky, rough, and slow going, giving us time to enjoy the stunning vistas presented at every turn. The day is long and we stop for tea at quaint roadside stalls with fields enclosed in rock walls stacked neatly to keep the stock from wandering. Nomad camps fascinate our imaginations as we ponder life in this harsh landscape knowing that this is not your usual tourist destination and that we must be as much a fascination for them as they are to us.

Stupa and high peaks
Enjoying the stupa and mani stones below the high peaks above the Zanskar Valley

There is not a lot of wildlife in this barren land, however along the way we encounter the cows, sheep, goats and water buffalo of the nomads. Marmots, little golden furry creatures of the squirrel family, are periodically seen nibbling on the grass among the rocks where they live. They have been captured by both our imagination and cameras. Bigger than their European counterparts they are about the size of a small dog.

A marmot sits quisically surveying the scene
Cute and cuddley, of the squirrel family, Marmot’s graze on the grass in this rocky mountain area, burrowing deep into the ground at night and in winter
Goats in Padum
Goats in Padum

Reaching Padum – our farthest destination on this trip

Big mountain in Zanskar side valley
A glimpse up a side valley near Padum reveals a massive powerful mountain with glaciers, blue in its distance and height, it awed us all

250km along this rocky road from Kargil we reach Padum 3,669m (12,037ft) at the centre of, but deep in, the tri-armed Zanskar Valley. A small 8th century palace is the centre-piece for the old town and Padum functions as the administrative centre of this region. Along with Zangla, these are the two main towns in the Zanskar Kingdom. Surrounded by high mountains, wide and sometimes deep valleys, farmland and farm houses, it is the centre for tourism, trekking, horse riding, skiing, mountain biking and exploration. From here you can travel in any of the three directions– including to the end of the road at Zangla. (The main photo for this story looks from Zangla fort up the valley beyond the roads end).

Zangla fort with strategic views up valleys
Perched high with amazing views to the main Zangla valley and side valleys the Zangla Fort was a delight to visit
Zangla Fort
Nearly at the top, still a good walk from the car park, this ancient fort (Zangla) is a must to visit

As we did, you can explore the fort at Zangla with its colourful history and small but amazingly calm meditation room, ancient buildings, and crumbling chortons (stupas). Zangla Fort was built by a Tibetan King who came to Zangla for his sister’s wedding. Loving the place, he stayed, married a local woman and settled in this valley. They had three children, one of whom was a Buddhist Lama, Nyima Oth Rinpoche (Oth meaning light – our guide tells us) whose blessing we could feel as we meditated in this gompa where very old thankas (Buddhist paintings) line the walls and a statue of him sits at the front alongside a Buddha statue and a Chenrezig statue. Ancestors still live in the village and are the caretakers of the Fort; however, a group of Hungarians have adopted the project of palace restoration.

Chortons at Zangla Fort
The view to the high peaks across the valley from Zangla fort with crumbling old chortons in the foreground.

Closed for travel by road for much of the year, due to deep snow, Padum remains cut off from the rest of the world at this time; however, a tunnel and road are being built from Keylong (near the Rohtang pass and Manali) in Himachal Pradesh. This will make Padum and this area of the Zanskar more accessible. Thus, it is to be expected that tourism to the area will grow taking the remoteness out of the equation. No doubt as a consequence the culture will change forever.

Striated mountains in the Padum Zangla region
Near Padum in the Zangla Valley geologists playground – note size of houses to gauge size of rock hills

The return journey begins

Stongde monastery
An old monk pushing the prayer wheel around at Stongde monastery
Monk at Stongde monastery
This beautiful old monk at Stongde monastery was peaceful, calm and cheerful as we visited and meditated in one of the monasteries gompas
To Padum from Stongde monastery
A patchwork of fields in transformation at harvest time looking from Stongde monastery towards Karsaha on the right and Padum on the left – way down the valley

We visit three monasteries: Stongde, perched atop a hill about 18km from Padum, and which provides views both up and down the Zangla Valley, was founded in 1052 by one of the old Buddhist Masters. We are shown around by one of the monks and enjoy viewing some of the nine meditation halls (gompas) with their very old statues and paintings. There is said to be about 60 monks living at Stongde.

Karsah Monastery
A closer view of Karsha Monastery molded to the steep hillside
Karsha
Clinging and molded into the hillside rests Karsha monastery and township which also houses a Buddhist nunnary

Karsha, built in the 11th century, clings steeply to the side of a hill, is situated opposite Padum, and looks like it has melded into the hillside. Its main gompa was re-built in 2009 and demolition of the old one revealed the well-preserved mummified body of its founder which is now on display in the new main gompa and provides for fascinating viewing in his final resting place which is a beautiful and peaceful stupa. Up to 100 monks still live and practice here at Karsha and as we pass a school room for the young monks we could hear the voices of the teacher and children.

Young trainee monks classrom at Karsha Monastery
Young monks have Buddhist and formal education and this is the classroom at Karsha monastery.
Stupa within Karsha monastery
Holding the mummified remains of the founder, this beautiful stupa is a monument within the Karsha gompa

About 6km from Padum on the main road back down the Zanskar plain is the Sani monastery, unusually built on the flat and not on a hill-top with its 2nd century stupa (the oldest in Ladakh – from the times of the Kushan emperor) and the old, but by no means less than, cremation grounds and stupa nearby. The meditation hall houses very old statues and a room off the main gompa holds an amazing statue and a library of literature dating from these ancient times. Famous yogis are said to have lived and meditated here such as Padmasambhava and Naropa (11th C) and nearby caves are still used for meditation today.

Ancient 2nd century cremation grounds Sani Zanskar
Among the 8 major cremation grounds, this ancient 2nd century cremation grounds beside Sani Monastery in the Zanskar Valley was an amazing find
Plain but old the 2nd century Sani stupa
Plain does not mean powerless – this stupa from the 2nd century at Sani monastery was both powerful and beautiful
Sani Monastery
Housing beautiful and amazing Thankas, statues and texts, this monastery at Sani, was a treasure trove of beauty

 The return journey to Leh

 

Small stupa on roadside in the Zanskar Valley
Small stupa on roadside in the Zanskar Valley
Nomads on lower Penzi La Pass
Nomads loading stock onto the back of a small truck on the lower part of Penzi-La Pass, Zanskar Valley

On our return journey, we stop to watch and photograph some nomads putting adult and baby yaks into a jeep parked sideways across the road. There is a bit of a flurry when the biggest yak tries to jump out over the side. The mountain views as the sun goes down are stunning and we take a lot of photos of the high glaciers and peaks revealed as the cloud is blown away and the sun shines deep pink and red as it slides behind the solid rock walls. We stay overnight in tents at Rangdum camp. It is very cold and good sleep evades us. The following morning we visit the gompa on the hill above the camp and enjoy its varied and interesting old statues. At some monasteries we could take photos of the statues and paintings but at others no photos are allowed.

Rangdum Monastery and camp dwarfed by striated low mountains
Dwarfed by the mountains, Rangdum camp and monastery sit in the right of this picture

We return to Leh via the same route enjoying the better roads, high passes and places we had seen along our outward journey. Once back in Leh, we spend an overnight in our now warm and familiar hotel the Grand Himalaya See link to gallery below the Leh Palace. The warmth of the sun has also warmed our enthusiasm for the next leg(s) of our four-pronged journey to the remote areas we can drive to, without trekking, the high mountain passes and remote valleys of this fascinating and diverse part of India.

Locked Gompa doors Sani Gompa
And so the doors close on this leg of the journey. Actually this is at Sani Monastery up the Zanskar

#Himalayanadventures #Himalayas#India #LadakhIndia #mistymountains #Travel #Zanskarvalley #Padum #Zanglafort #Moonland #Buddhistmonasteries

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