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Ancient Kingdoms of Ladakh & Zanskar Trek
'The world is a book, and those who do not travel
read only a page.'
This is a challenging Himalayan trek in an exotic land of ancient kingdoms, high mountain passes and unforgettable landscapes, with a bit of exploratory trekking thrown in for good measure. A journey through Ladakh and Zanskar, once part of the Kingdom of Western Tibet, is a journey back through the centuries to a time when nomads transmigrated from one pastureland to another, and traded their salt and wool barley and staples with the people of the lowlands ...
Tibetan Buddhist lamas, cliff-side monasteries, grazing yaks and lively, traditional villages add a sense of the otherworldly to our journey through Ladakh & Zanskar. The region, once explored by the old explorers in search of better trade, a route to forbidden Lhasa and unimaginable wealth, today challenges us with high passes to cross and rivers to negotiates, and rewards is with a taste of 'old Tibet'. Our trek passes through the small Kingdom of Yulchung, a time barely remembered by the villagers, and continues across the Zanskar River gorges and through the canyons and spires of 'Bear Valley' to reach the ancient Kingdom of Zangla, the upper reaches of Zanskar. White-washed villages, ruined forts and dramatically perched gompas await us, and we spend a few days trekking between them, camping in wonderful sites en route.
We finish with a spectacular eight-day exploratory route west from Stongde Gompa to Brandy Nala, where our jeeps await us to drive us to Himachal Pradesh and our hotel tucked away in the green hills of Manali.
This trek is a real adventure in a world where there are not many left, and a wonderful journey through the Indian Himalaya.
Arrival in India
Most flights into Delhi arrive late at night or very early in the morning; plan the date and time of your arrival carefully. Please email us your flight arrival details as soon as possible, and have our contact details with you when you arrive in Delhi. Kim will have her mobile with her, as will our drivers from Dhruv Travels, so don't hesitate to call.
Note that although we try to follow the itinerary below, at times local trail, river or weather conditions may make a deviation necessary; rivers may be impassible, snow blocks passes, and landslides wipe out trails. The trekking itinerary and campsites may also vary slightly depending on our trekkers' acclimatization rates.
Day 1 - Arrive Delhi
Kim or a representative from Dhruv Travels will meet your international flight at the New Delhi airport, so look for a yellow Project Himalaya sign as well as a sign with your name on it. We'll bring you to our wonderful Rajasthani-style hotel in Paharganj, the Jhoti Mahal.
Day 2 - Fly Leh
It's an early morning in steamy Delhi as we board the spectacular Jet Air flight, crossing the main Himalayan Barrier to reach Leh, the capital of Ladakh. We will feel the elevation as it's a big jump from sea-level to 3500 meters, and it will take your body a few days to adjust to this altitude. It's very important to drink plenty of water, and to not over-exert yourself while wandering around Leh. Even walking up the stairs of our wonderful garden guest house, The Shaynam Hotel, will make you breathless for the first day or two. Note that we have planned plenty of acclimatization time into our itinerary.
We'll head back into town in the evening, after much-needed naps, for dinner at one of our favorite Tandoori restaurants in town. You'll have to save the cold beers for after the trek, though ...
Days 3, 4 - Leh
We have two more days to enjoy the peaceful atmosphere of this little piece of old Tibet, King Tashi Namgyal's 15th century Himalayan capital. There is lots to explore in this wonderful Central Asian town, and Kim knows it well; the fort and palace, colorful gompas, the mosque, a museum, back alleys with steaming Muslim bread and tiny antique shops tucked away, colorful bazaars and even a polo field. Of course, we'll show you the best bakeries, cafes and hang-outs in Leh ...
We'll spend part of one day visiting some of the wonderful Tibetan Buddhist gompas and ancient forts which make the Indus valley such a scenic and historic region.
Day 5 - Drive Panjila, camp Panjila 3275m
After breakfast, we jump into our jeeps and head for the start of the trek at Panjila, about a 5 hour drive along the Indus Highway. Just outside of Leh, we pass Spitok Gompa on the left and Phyang Gompa on the right; look out the back windows for a spectacular panorama of the Ladakh range, which extends westward to meet the Karakorum range in the distance. We approach the confluence of the Indus and Zanskar rivers far down below our cliff-side road; note the melting of the blue and the brown rivers into one larger volume Indus River. About an hour later, we come to Basgo, a 500 year old World Heritage Monument situated spectacularly above the Indus. We'll stop for a visit, as it's an incredible site, presently being renovated. If we have time, we will make a side-trip to the 1000 year old Alchi Gompa, built in the Northern Indian style with wonderful frescos and murals inside the many prayer rooms, and a lovely, serene setting perched on the bank of the Indus in a checkered valley.
We plan to arrive at camp mid-afternoon; the staff will have the camp and tents set up and tea brewing, and we will show you around your new home for the next three weeks. We'll have a chance in the early evening to take a walk through Panjila, a lovely village lined with apricot trees and lively with villagers.
Day 6 - Trek Hanupatta 3960m
Our first days of real Himalayan trekking, starting with an hour's walk along the new road being built to connect Ladakh with Zanskar. After crossing the new bridge, we continue on the dirt road for half an hour, eventually reaching the trail through the spectacular gorge leading to Hanupatta. Pink Zanskar roses line our trail, leaving behind a scent of cinnamon, and incredible spires of rock tower above at every corner. There is a chance for tea at the corner of our gorge and another leading to Photoksar, and an oasis of a spring soon afterwards to fill up water bottles. After another two hours of hiking, we enter the long village of Hanupatta, with its ancient carved mani walls and chortens, and continue another half hour to the rickety bridge that leads to our camp on the river. At camp, we will show you how to set up your Marmot or Big Agnes tents, re-orient you with the dining tent, re-introduce you to the staff, and go over the trek itinerary for the next three weeks. Tomorrow we have an acclimatization day in Hanupatta, and have a great hike planned ...
Day 7 - Hanupatta
A rest day for acclimatization, and to spend a bit of extra time in one of our favorite villages! For anyone interested in a day hike, we'll start after breakfast, and head up the valley to the west of the village to a wonderful viewpoint, at about 4300 meters. From here, we'll be able to look down on one of the village 'kharkas', or summer grazing settlements, and will have a panoramic view of the surrounding ranges. If the flowers are in bloom, it's a colorful day! We arrive back in camp for a late lunch, and in time for a wash in the pools of the stream running by our campsite ...
Day 8 - Trek Photoksar 4200m
We'll head off early this morning, as we have a big day in front of us. We will climb our first pass today, the 5000 meter Sirsir La, a trek of approximately five hours from camp. Expansive views of the craggy ranges surrounding us reward us at the prayer-flag festooned summit, and if it isn't too windy, we will have lunch up top. Afterwards, we descend to the incredibly scenic village of Photoksar, perched precariously on a hillside just past our camp, where if the wild flowers are in bloom, is one of the most beautiful spots in Ladakh, and certainly one of the most photographed. Our campsite is one of the best on the trek, with amazing views downriver to Photoksar, and the villagers, herding their flocks of sheep and goats, will stop by our campsite en route back to Photoksar with their herd of sheep and goats coming down from the high grazing hills ...
Day 9 - Trek Singge Valley Camp 4430m
Our day isn't so long today, so we have time to take a short detour into Photoksar for a visit, and then cross the old, wooden bridge which leads to our second pass, the Bumiktse La at 4400 meters. There is an a great view of Photoksar in back of us from the pass, as well as the Singge La valley, the Utah-like bulk of the Singge (lion) Peak and the Singge La (pass) ahead of us. This valley is the high pastures of the Photoksar villagers, and we pass their herds all day en route to camp at the base of the pass. Bring sandals, as there are two rivers to cross during the day. Camp is set in a wide valley with plenty of space and no one else around ...
Day 10 - Trek Yulchung 3900m
We'll have an early start this morning to catch the views across Ladakh and Zanskar from the 5000 meter Singe La. After a break to hang prayer flags, we'll drop into the dramatic canyon that leads to the isolated village of Yulchung, translated as 'small kingdom', with its 500 year old gompa, traditional village and grassy camp just on the edge of the village. The views from this village win Kim's vote for 'the-best-of-the-trek', and the villagers, not used to many trekkers, are wonderful and open. We'll have many visitors in the evening, and a chance to visit a traditional Ladakhi house and the gompa in the afternoon. Don't miss sunset from the gompa!
Day 11 - Trek Nyeraks 3710m
Past the ruins of an old hermitage, we head through the village and towards the ridge that seems to drop out of Yulchung deep into the canyon below. Keep an eye out for the red fox that lives in the vicinity, and for blue sheep grazing along the hillsides. After contouring around several hillsides, we have a small climb to the Chocho Khuri La at 3865 meters. We then drop down a steep switchback into the gorge of the Zanskar River, which we cross by a bridge that has definitely seen better days (look at the construction). We climb up the hillside on a winding trail past a unique version of a 'lhatoo' (a shrine to the mountain deities the locals believe live on local peaks), a sculpture made from ibex horns, to the village of Nyeraks, perched on a plateau high above the Zanskar. You begin to understand the harshness of life in such a setting, between pass and river gorge, a seemingly impossible place, with its own beautiful monastery, and even an old, sacred tree. The small village gompa is wonderful, a real relic of times past ... Our campsite is another spectacular one (in a chain of them), with incredible sunset views over the village, gompa and surrounding peaks. The quality of light in this part of the Himalaya is breathtaking, so be sure to have an evening stroll through the village and take some shots.
Day 12 - Trek Bear Camp 3980m
Up early for our steep, 1100 meter climb from Nyeraks up to the 4800 meter Takti La pass, which should take us four or five hours. By lunchtime, we will be looking back across to the Singge La and the serrated ridges that we have crossed over the past few days, and an hour later, we will have crested our second, smaller pass (named Oh Shit La after the view upon reaching this pass from the other direction, and seeing the Takti La looming ominously ahead of us). We have now entered what we call Bear Valley, and a steep trail down brings us to the clearing that we call Bear Camp (although we haven't actually spent the night there with one) and into our 'lost valley' of Zanskar. The crew will light a fire tonight to keep the bears at bay (although the rumors are that the villagers of Zangla shot them after the bears raided their sheep paddocks) ...
Note: Our only actual bear spotting was in 2003, when our group did this trek for the first time. We spotted a brown bear cub right next to us, and then across the valley what we presumed to be its parents, not looking happy that a large group of trekkers were hanging out with their offspring. The next season we only spotted frozen bear scat and no prints, but in 2005 we again spotted fresh bear scat, so we presume that the bears are back! We hope to see them in 2007 ...
Day 13 - Trek Karmafu 3780m
Our short walk today is an exciting and beautiful one, first along the wooded riverside, and then over (or under) an ice bridge and through a narrow canyon with ankle deep water (bring sandals if you want). Next on the list of adventures is a high, exposed trail over the river followed by an easy river fording and another canyon trek on crumbling trails. Just past this tricky section, we crest a small rise and have a lovely view down valley towards our plateau campsite, a spectacular one. We often stop for lunch a at the junction of a small stream, where in 2005 Kim set off alone to help get camp set up, and heard a load splashing right next to her in the river, which she assumed to be a bear ... Joel and the boys, ever brave, came running out with (or without) the bear spray! We're also on the look-out for snow-leopard, fox and wolf prints and scat. We arrive in camp early afternoon, in time to enjoy the views, go for a dip in the stream, perhaps climb up for some more views, and possibly spot some blue sheep and ibex that roam the hillsides here.
Day 14 - Trek Zangla Doksa Camp 3430m
A small col above our campsite takes us to the trail, following a willow lined river, which we slowly ascend for a few hours before heading up a bit more steeply for an easy crossing the Namtse La, a desert-like pass at 4430 meters. If the weather cooperates, this is our lunch spot; a scenic one! Afterwards, we'll drop steeply into another valley, that, after some three hours walking, brings us out onto the wide plain that was the once kingdom of Zangla. You really get a sense of why this remained a hidden kingdom for so long as you look around; to your left, the capital, Zangla and its hilltop fort. Past Zangla, the Himalayan barrier, and the Umasi La to Kashmir; the wooden beams that are the centre of most Zanskari houses came from there, laboriously carried by porters. Below the Zanskar curves away into the Muslim Suru valley and the Pensi La, closed for all but three months of every year and in front, behind the villages of Pidmo and Pishu, the Zanskar range cuts off approach for all but those like us, a well equipped caravan. After emerging from the gorge we have a one hour walk through Honya Doksa and along the Zanskar plateau to our riverside camp, which we call Zangla Doksa Camp. Doksa means seasonal nomadic settlement in Ladakhi, but the sheep only pass through our campsite on their way to Honya Doksa ...
The grass is green, the stream warm, so go for a wash and settle in for the evening. Sunsets and sunrises are amazing from camp!
Day 15 - Trek Stondge 3600m
We'll have to walk much of the day along the local road, but we can get 'off-road' a bit and wander through the villages of Tsazar and Shillingskyid, well off the main trekking route, to get a taste of life in old Zanskar. Last year we ran into a red fox just above the road while exploring alternative routes, so this year we'll try to 'pioneer' new ways to avoid the road as well. We will reach our campsite at Stondge by lunchtime, and have the afternoon free to wander through this interesting village.
Day 16 - Stongde
We have a free day in Stongde today to re-supply for the exploratory section of the trek which we start tomorrow from Stongde Gompa. While the crew shops, we'll hike the half hour up to the gompa for some wonderful views of the patchwork of Stongde village and the Zanskar valley. Stongde Gompa, about 750 years old, is one of the oldest in Ladakh or Zanskar, and one of the most colorful, perched precariously up on a craggy rock ledge, and surrounded by a lovely birch woods. Kim has many friends there who will probably invite us for tea, and give us a tour of the gompa, including it's room of treasures in back of the oldest 'lha khang', or prayer hall. We might be able to catch the evening puja, which is a surreal experience, a step back hundreds of years in time ...
Day 17 - Trek Suslantaktak (Exploratory Section Start) 4290m
Our exploratory trek begins today; Our Sherpa assistant guide, Lhakpa and our horsemen scouted this region last year to find the best campsites and safest trails. Following are their notes on the day to day trek ...
It's a long, hard day, at least seven hours, so be ready with extra snack food and gear for changing weather (as usual in Ladakh!). We begin the day with a gradual ascent to a beautiful doksa, and then climb an additional gradual two hours to the pass. From the pass, we get great views of the Namtse La, Zangla village and Stongde. The trail down is quite good, following the left side of the river and hillside. Three hours and two river crossings bring us to a lovely campsite with a few trees, where we might camp with locals on their way out to the Leh - Manali highway as well.
Day 18 - Trek Zingchen 4100m
It's an early morning, as the sun hits camp just before 7:30 am, so we'll be up with the sun to enjoy the day (and our first cup of fresh coffee!). We start our four hour day with a descent through a narrow gorge and a hilly trail; bring your sandals, as the next section of the trail crosses the river approximately 15 times! A climb up from the river rewards us with great views of an open valley to the south of us, and another hour of easy trekking brings us to our campsite for the evening, a great location with spring water and lots of sun, so relax and enjoy the afternoon!
Day 19 - Trek Tantak Gompa 4020m
Another four hour day with a river crossing after an hour and a half of hiking along the left side of the river, and a climb to reach the intersection to Shade on the right side. We're in a beautiful gorge valley, with wide open space all around. Our campsite is below Tantak Gompa, a little-visited 750 year old monastery. There is no resident monk, but there are two households left in the small village which was once much larger. Apparently there was a migration of the villagers, and we are not sure why, so will do some investigative work tomorrow!
We can explore a bit in the afternoon, or do some much-needed washing ... or perhaps just a few cups of chai in the dining tent?
Day 20 - Tantak Gompa (Daytrip to Shade)
A chance to see some village life, as we head early from camp for our daytrip to Shade village, the only village of any size in this valley. We'll bring a picnic lunch, and make a full day of it.
Day 21 - Trek Hormoche 3970m
Back on trail, and it's a hard Himalayan trekking day, so have a substantial breakfast and an extra cup of java! We head towards the Nyalo Kuntse La at 4800 meters, crossing the river two times before we reach the top before we ascend. And then another pass 2 1/2 hours away, the Gothurstap La, straight up at 5150 meters! And another (really), but this isn't much of a pass since we are already so high, and there is great lake view from the top. Another 1 1/2 hours brings us to our camp at a local doksa; we'll get our tents set up quickly, the cooks will get the water boiling for tea, and we'll collapse before dinner ...
Day 22 - Trek Satak 4030m
The trail isn't great today, but is quite flat, and we'll have plenty of grazing yaks for company. These yaks don't see many trekkers, so keep a good distance from them as they can be a bit temperamental. It's another sandal day, perhaps, with one river crossing (the Zara Chu, which leads to Sangtha and Rupshu, where we run our Caravans trek). Camp is in a nice spot, above another deserted village.
Day 23 - Trek Tsokmiksik 4100m
A steep, 350 meter ascent to start the day, but the trail is good, so it's not difficult. We contour around three hillsides, and after about four hours of trekking in a stunning, wide valley, descend to our campsite. The campsite isn't the best, but is at the intersection to the Marang La trekking route, so well used. We'll make up for it with a few glasses of rum in the evening!
Day 24 - Trek Brandy Nala 4180m
A short day along the river to our final campsite at Brandy Nala, right on the river. This one is a great campsite, and we'll celebrate our last day with the horsemen with a party, tips and a few more glasses of rum, perhaps ... It's the end of a long and adventurous journey, so we deserve a little reward!
Lhakpa and our kitchen staff will drive back to Manali with us, so we'll get together with them tomorrow night for dinner.
Day 25 - Drive Manali
Our journey continues, but by road along the Leh - Manali highway back to Manali. The drive will take us about 8 hours, but you'll be glued to the window for the entire trip. The scenery along this section of road must rival any road in the world, and in fact many tourists come ONLY to drive the Leh - Manali highway, a trip of about 450 kilometers. We'll arrive back in Manali in time for a hot shower and the best pizza in the Indian Himalaya at Il Forno. AND they have chilled beers; what better way to end our journey through Ladakh and Zanskar?
Day 26 - Overnight Bus to Delhi
Most of the day is free today as the Luxury HP Sleeper Bus leaves at 5pm, so enjoy the time to roam the bazaars of Manali, or to relax on the deck of the Mayflower.
Day 27 - Delhi
You can either depart tonight, as most flights leave early in the morning, or relax for the day in Delhi and leave the next day. Check your departure dates carefully.
Day 28 - Depart
You'll be driven to the airport for your flight home. Thanks for sharing the journey with us! We hope that you had an wonderful trek, and hope to see you soon back in the Himalaya soon.