Hidden Zanskar

India part 2 | Kargil to Padum | Day 51

This rugged dead end road winds through the upper Suru Valley, traverses the windswept Pensi La, only to strand you in the Zanskar valley - one of the most remote places in India. Nature is unforgiving in these mountains and winters are nearly inhospitable. Seven months out of the year snow and ice isolates the valleys from outside contact. Only those willing to brave the extreme physical conditions of the eight day trek in thigh-high snow, up the frozen river are able to reach the outside world. Total isolation and harsh conditions has kept the beautiful people and customs of Zanskar untainted for centuries. This road is sandwiched between The Zanskar and the Great Himalayan Range running along the Suru and the Zanskar river. Before the road was built in 1984, the only access to these remote villages was by trekking. Five days of cycling has brought us through some of the most beautiful landscape nature has permitted us to enter.

Plummeting into the Suru valley leaving Kargil we pass through villages rich in grass, wheat, and barley. Families cut the harvest by hand using a sickle, a crude hatchet-like tool with a curved blade. They carry massive loads of grass on their backs to their homes for drying; the grass is left to dry in the sun and saved for the animals to eat through the barren winter. Stacks of cow dung line the streets, also drying in the sun for later use as fuel during the winter. Summer is a time of rejuvenation of the land and preparation for the imminent winter.

For the first time in India it is difficult for us to find a guest house. We arrive in Sankhu looking for a room, a sign is spotted claiming a guest house down the road. We ask multiple store owners and villagers along the street. Although it is agreed there is a guest house, flailing directions, "left" or "right" with opposing hand signals, and shrugs are given as to where it is actually located. In a village that seems to be less than a mile around, we can’t seem to find the aforementioned guest house and bike around aimlessly. Misleading signs claim “Tea Stall and Hotel,” only to find none actually have hotels attached, or at least not available to foreigners. Finally, a more promising lead draws us to the edge of town to an abandoned looking J&K (Jammu and Kashmir) Tourist Bungalow. J&K’s are government run initiatives to promote tourism through the valley. The bungalows were started around 12 years, but look as if they have been unkept for 40+ years. However, they are never full, or have anyone in them at all, and only cost 400 rupees ($6) for the night…. this is our kind of place! We stayed in three different J&K throughout our trip down the valley. 

After the first 60 kilometers the pavement dissipates to sharp rocks cobbled together to form a semblance of a road. The constant butt-beating of a path lessens the traffic and we’re no longer haunted by as many barreling Tata’s and cars. The further we cycle down the valley, the more novel and exciting we become. These small villages that dot the valley rarely see foreigners, except through jeep or SUV windows, which never pause to enjoy the uniqueness of each tiny village. 

Our second J&K, an alpine hut, has us sipping tea as we observe the surrounding snowcapped mountains and hide from a growing wind. Later in the evening we are bombarded by 20 locals singing and laughing piling into the hut. What we thought to be some sort of a family reunion, turned out to be Kargil’s postal service on a two day picnic; coworkers taking advantage of the long weekend for India’s Independence. Can you imagine that kind of team building with no alcohol!? We spent the rest of the night watching them prepare an extravagant meal of mutton, rice and vegetables which they kindly shared with us and making small talk with basic English and sign language. 

The road curves around the eastern side of Nun and Kun, two 23,000ft+ peaks, which are amongst the tallest in India. We had the pleasure of watching the sun glisten off Nun and Kun with clear skies. Each passing kilometer presents a new perspective of the massive rock faces, blowing our minds with their enormity, neither of us have seen mountains this big before. Sitting next to a large stupa, the first sign of Buddhism in days, we nibble on chapati bread and peanut butter, gazing at the massive peaks. 

Rangdum, a cluster of small Ladakhi homes scattered along a plateau, is the last sign of anything resembling a village or food before we start our two day ride over Pensi La. In the evening the entire village gathered to witness a wedding ceremony full of decadent traditional Ladakhi garb, a few men playing a simple drum beat and a handful of costumed men dance. There were many parts to the ceremony, most were lost on us, but it seemed the bride was waiting in another village and that this was some version of a bachelor party that would be partying with every village along the way. We were later told there is a week of ceremonies for weddings involving various groups of the wedding party, sounds exhausting... 

We drank tea and ate homemade biscuits with these two policemen at their post. Rigzin, on the left, told us stories of his six day treks through the mountains during the winter just to get out of the valley. In order to avoid sinking into the nine feet of snow he would sleep during the days and travel over the frozen snow at night. He is also a farmer and invited us to his home in a village on the way to Padum. 


"The switch backed road leads us closer and closer to the pass with every turn the wind grows and we catch a glimpse of the surrounding valleys." 


Yaks were waiting for us at the top of Pensi La, eating grass and drinking from the shimmering alpine ponds mirroring the clouds. A couple false summits were like bread crumbs leading us to the pile of prayer flags and a sign reading “Pensi la 14,000 ft.” For the record, Pensi La is actually at 14,436ft. and our legs demand recognition for the extra 436ft. 

We descended past Drang-Drung Glacier, a highway of ice flowing between two mountains. Drang-Drung is the second largest glacier in India and every year it continues to shrink in size. I wonder what it looked like 40 years ago? 

A howling wind forces us to ignore the potential camp spot at the top overlooking the lakes and yak and escape lower down the mountain to an abandon shed, just below the glacier. There were small rock walls and nooks built all around the shed, but we were at a loss for what it could all be for. We ravaged some Maggi noodle soup and crawled into our tent early as the temperature lowered with the sun. 

In a small village just after Sani, we started looking for Rigzin, the police officer we had tea with before Pensi La just a few days earlier. After consulting with the entire village, we were escorted to his house, a large beautiful whitewashed home with purple trim he was painting as we walked up. Rigzin and his family were amazingly welcoming and it was hard to continue on our way without refusing his offer to stay the night approximately 20 times. It was only early afternoon, and we were anxious to get to Padum, a village with a few more accommodations. 

The people who inhabit Zanskar are incredibly kind-hearted, we had the most welcoming experiences during our home stays, middle of nowhere tea stall visits, and roadside breaks. People with so little to spare yet are completely willing to let you have whatever you need and more.


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