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Remote Ladakh & Suru Valley Trek
'The world is a book, and those who do not travel
read only a page.'
A challenging Himalayan trek, traversing ancient kingdoms of Ladakh and part of Zanskar along remote trails, passing over high mountain passes and through unforgettable landscapes, with a bit of exploratory trekking to the partially Muslim Suru Valley thrown in for good measure ...
Ladakh, once part of Western Tibet, was crossed centuries ago by intrepid explorers in search of new trade opportunities, a route to forbidden Lhasa and unimaginable wealth. We trek along some of those ancient routes, and explore some of our own en route to the Tibetan Buddhist Rangdum Gompa an the Suru Valley. For a bit of adventure, we negotiate the canyons and spires of 'Bear Valley' to reach the ancient Kingdom of Zangla, the upper reaches of Zanskar. Tibetan Buddhist lamas, cliff-side monasteries, ruined fortresses, grazing yaks and lively, traditional villages add a sense of the otherworldly to our journey, while the Suru valley, its inhabitants partly Muslim, remind us that we have roamed deep into Central Asia.
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
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. They will bring you to the hotel for the afternoon or evening, usually not much time before your flight the next morning so try to get to sleep as early as possible ...
Day 2 - Fly Leh 3500m
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 the guest house will make you breathless for the first day or two. Note that we have planned plenty of acclimatization time into our itinerary.
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. And, of course, we'll show you the bakeries, cafes and tandoori restaurants with cold beer for our dinners together!
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, trek Hanupatta 3980
After breakfast, we jump into our jeeps and head for the start of the trek at Panjila, about a five-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. If we have time, we'll stop for a visit, as it's an incredible site, presently being renovated.
Our first day of real Himalayan trekking, starting by crossing the new bridge into the gorge. 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 (sumdo) 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. Once at camp, we will show you how to set up your Marmot or Big Agnes tents, introduce you to our dining tent and staff, and later in the evening 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 6 - 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.
For those not feeling 100%, rest!
Day 7 - Trek Photoksar 4200m
We'll head off early this morning, as we have a big day in front of us. We climb our first pass, the 4820 meter Sirsir La, a climb 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 8 - Trek Singge Valley Camp 4430m
Our day isn't so long today, so we have time to take a short detour into Photoksar village, and then cross the old, wooden bridge which leads to our second pass, the Bumiktse La at 4400 meters. We'll pass a high camp and teahouse an hour up which has wonderful views down to the green fields of Photoksar, and another half and hour brings us to the mani walls of the pass. There are great views of Photoksar in back of us from the pass, a look deep into the alternative gorge route to Panjila to the south and 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, the first long but shallow one at an old chorten. Camp is set in a wide valley with plenty of space, a clean river for washing, late afternoon sun and no one else around ...
Day 9 - Trek Yulchung 3900m
We'll have an early start this morning to catch the views across Ladakh and Zanskar from the 5000 meter Singge La, which should take us about 2 1/2 hours from camp; there is a small tea-house en route, below the pass. After a break to hang prayer flags on the pass, we drop into the dramatic canyon that leads to the isolated village of Yulchung, translated as 'small kingdom'. An hour of steep descent leads to the stark High Camp, where we veer to the left away from the Lingshed trail. Our trail is a bit exposed as it contours along a steep valley side above the gorge, but we are eventually rewarded with the best table at the 'Kamzang Cafe', with views of the canyon walls across the stream, smoothed by centuries of wind and water. Below us, Yulchung appears with its 500 year old gompa, barley fields and perfect campsite on the edge of the village. The views from our campsite are mind-blowing, and the villagers, not used to many trekkers, are friendly 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 10 - Trek Nyeraks 3710m
We contour around the checkered village on the way out of town, and crest a hill at the partial ruins of Tashi Thongzes Gompa, worth a visit if you didn't yesterday. The ridge to the left seems to drop away 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 cantilevered bridge that has seen better days. 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 blue sheep 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, 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 11 - 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 nearly 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.
Day 12 - 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 slot 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 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 13 - Trek Zangla Doksa River 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 (doksa means seasonal grazing settlement in Ladakhi) and along the Zanskar plateau to our lovely riverside camp, which we call Zangla Doksa River Camp.
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! The locals from Honya Doksa, will pass by in the evenings with their large herds of sheep, goats and donkeys, making for some classic photos of traditional life in Zanskar.
Day 14 - Zangla Doksa River Camp
A rest day finally at one of our favorite, and greenest, campsites. There is lots to explore in the village of Zangla, starting with the ruins of the 500 year old fortress. The Zangla Fort, the old dzong (palace fortress) of the kings of Zangla, is a breathtaking site, built precariously on top of a ledge of rock at the intersection of the Zanskar River and the small river leading out to the Jumlam, or middle route. This route was an autumn trading route to avoid the high passes of Ladakh, and must have been open to invasions, thus the fort and series of look-out towers down the Jumlam valley. The dzong houses a wonderful prayer room, which we happened upon a few years ago. In 2005, over two straight weeks of continuous rain and wind literally 'melted' the dzong, and it is now quite unsafe to enter, although someone always wants to go inside. The famous Hungarian scholar Alexander Csoma de Koros spent a winter in the 19th century studying Tibetan in order to make a dictionary in a room in the fort, now commemorated as his room.
Ancient chortens with tsatsas in the niches line the trail as we descend back to Zangla village. Straight through the village, past the king's house, the trail leads to the lively ani gompa, or nunnery, worth a visit.
Day 15 - Trek Hanamur 3300m
Heading back across the plateau, we eventually reach a bridge over the Zanskar River leading to Pidmo village. Once through the village, we take the river trail, first past the fields of Pidmo and then along a trail lined with seabuckthorne bushes and Zanskar roses. A few ascents and descents lead to the small bridges on the outskirts of our campsite at the two-house hamlet of Hanamur.
Day 16 - Trek Nyetse 3640m
It's a spectacular morning of trekking, climbing high above the Zanskar River to the 3900 meter Parfi La (pass); we are following the classic Zanskar Ladakh traverse for two days now. It's a steep drop to the Oma Chu below us and endless switchbacks, but eventually we reach shade at the bridge, where we stop for lunch. Then back into the afternoon sun for the 1 1/2 hour climb to a ridge-pass, and what was once one of the most exposed trails in the Himalaya, thankfully widened a few years ago . A sharp turn to the left at the ridge and a long traverse drops us into the tiny camp of Nyetse, tucked away at the foot of tomorrow's pass, the Hanumul La.
Day 17 - Trek Lingshed Gongma
We'll start early for the climb to the Hanumul La; it's a tough day, but a spectacular one. The four to five hour climb up the long, shimmering valley widens after a few of hours, the trail always gently ascending and passing small river junctions to the left of our trail. Half an hour before we reach it, we see the 4950m Hanumul La silhouetted against the Himalayan sky. The craggy crest of the pass is awesome, a breathtaking panorama of serrated peaks and gorges with Lingshed village below us. Lunch is on top if the weather cooperates; if not, on a crest just below. The trail down is steep, an endless series of switchbacks, but it's often possible to scree-jump and avoid some of them. We'll set up camp below the pass at a spot called Lingshed Gongma (lower Lingshed), and wash of the dust of the descent at a small stream.
Day 18 - Daytrip Lingshed Gompa
We built in a free day to visit the spectacularly set oasis of Lingshed Gompa and Lingshed village, an hour or two from our campsite. The balconies of the gompa are a wonderful spot for a cup of salt-butter tea with the welcoming monks, and the views from the gompa tremendous. Lingshed Gompa is one of the largest in Ladakh, with lots of character, ancient prayer-rooms and the conch shell blown daily for the morning and evening pujas. The is also lots to explore in the lively village; traditional houses, barley and pea fields, mani walls and chortens and ruins, and if you missed salt-butter tea at the gompa, someone will probably invite you in at the village.
Day 19 - Trek Dibling
The next four days are exploratory, so we will consult with the horsemen in the evenings and perhaps all set off together in the morning. This first day will be a long one, over the 4960 meter Skyertse La and then the Marpo La before reaching camp at Dibling, on the Oma Chu (river).
Day 20 - Trek Pikdong La Base Camp
Back on trail, another exploratory day to the base of the Pikdong La (pass), leaving the Oma Chu behind.
Day 21 - Trek River Camp
Over the 5020 meter Pikdong La pass, and back down to camp by another river leading to the Suru Valley on Day 3 of our exploratory section.
Day 22 - Trek Rangdum
We follow the river, finally reaching the Suru Valley and our camp at Rangdum; thus ends our trek and our exploratory section, sadly. Rangdum is a traditional Tibetan-style village set amidst a wide plateau, bordered by ancient chortens, and protected by the ancient 'dzong' of Rangdum Gompa. We'll set up our camp in a good spot to enjoy the views, and get right to finding the rum!
Day 23 - Rangdum
A free day to explore this atmospheric village and its ancient, dramatically perched gompa. If we need an extra day on the exploratory section, this is it. This will be our last night with the staff, so we'll have a little party in the evening.
Day 24 - Drive Lamayuru Gompa 3460m
Our journey continues, but by road through the beautiful Suru Valley, partly Buddhist and partly Muslim, to the spectacular Lamayuru Gompa where we stay in a lodge for the night. We'll explore the gompa in the late afternoon, getting classic sunset shots of it in the evening. Everyone is on their own for dinner ...
Day 25 - Drive to Leh
More scenic driving as we make our way along the Indus back to Leh, our rooms at Shaynam Hotel, hot showers, cold beers and Tandoori food!
Day 26 - Leh
One last day in our favorite Central Asian capital to wind down ...
Day 27 - Fly Delhi. Depart
We are up early for our Jet Air flight back to Delhi; you'll have spectacular views of Ladakh, the many ranges of mountains and the Indus Valley on the way back. You'll be met at Delhi airport by Dhruv travels and taken to the hotel to store your bags for the afternoon, to the international airport for your departure, or where ever else you chose to go for the afternoon. You could fly out of Delhi later in this day; most flights are at night and you should be back in Delhi by mid-morning to noon.
If you have successive international flights that are not all part of the same ticket or following domestic flights we suggest planning more cautiously and departing tomorrow. Let us know if you need us to book an extra room for the night.