Exploring India's Ancient Kingdom of Zanskar

  |  Gorp.com

If Nepal is old hat and Tibet too trendy for you, check out Zanskar, an arid, sparsely beautiful high-altitude valley in the northwest Indian region of Ladakh, where the culture is more Tibetan than Tibet's. The local people, devout Buddhists, manage to coax a simple, comfortable, and joyous way of life from the hardscrabble earth. Although some western-style development has taken place in surrounding Ladakh (mostly the result of the well-meaning but culturally myopic Indian government, as well as growing numbers of tourists), Zanskar is still an utterly remote area without airports or roads that is literally cut off from the rest of the world by snow for six months a year.

There's no way to get there but walk. The most popular trekking route starts at the monastery at Lamayuru, near the Ladhaki capital of Leh, and head south over Singi La, a 17,000-foot pass, and then descends to the Zanskar River. The "capital" of Zanskar is Padum, a village of mud and stone where yaks crowd the main square. The main trail continues south along the river to Kargya and over Shingo La to the southern trailhead at Darcha, near the pleasant Indian hilltown of Manali.

Practically Speaking

Independent travel in Zanskar is best left to truly intrepid explorers with a lust for logistics. There are no facilities whatsoever—no motorized transport, not even food to buy. You must carry everything you will need with you for the duration of your trip, except sand and rocks.

Several U.S. and British outfitters, however, run organized treks into Zanskar, and this is the way to go for most of us. The usual trekking route, described above, takes about three weeks and costs $100-150 per day.

Although maximum altitudes are not unusual by Himalayan standards, you'll spend weeks at a time above 13,000 feet. The sun is broiling hot by day, the air frigid at night, so be prepared.

Published: 8 Jul 2005 | Last Updated: 3 Dec 2012
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


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