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Ancient Trails of Ladakh
"The land is so harsh and the passes so many only the best of
friends or the worst of enemies would visit you"
Needless to say, we consider ourselves the best of friends...
August in the ancient kingdom of Ladakh; blue skies, white clouds, soaring snow-peaks, cathedral-like rock pillars and white chortens. Multi-colored prayer flags on every high point flutter their devotions skyward.
The trek combines the classic villages and fascinating culture of central Zanskar with the vivid history and colorful, living gompas (monasteries) of Ladakh. We trek deep into the ancient kingdom of Zangla, resplendent with its spectacular fort perched atop a craggy peak, via a wild route high into incredible, ochre-hued canyons rarely visited by trekkers.
During harvest time in these timeless, Tibetan-style villages, the lush green of the snow-fed oases come alive with activity. We are greeted by singing Ladakhis from the patterns of harvested barley in the adjoining fields. Add a remote trek into the spectacular 'Bear Valley', the Shillakong gorge route out, and you've got the high point of our season in the peacock skies.
This trek is an epic journey through some of the more remote and spectacular areas of Ladakh and Zanskar, perhaps the latest 'best-of' trek in Ladakh and Zanskar. No other Western company runs a trek like it, or maybe even knows about it. So be among the first, and join us this year for the journey of the summer.
Indian summer at its best!
Note that although we try to follow the itinerary here, 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.
Also note that most flights into Delhi arrive late at night/very early in the morning. Plan your arrival time and date carefully and ask if you are not sure. Finally for the departure, also plan your times carefully and understand that sometimes the flight from Leh to Delhi can be delayed by a day by bad weather, approx 1 in 20 flights are delayed.
Day 1 - Arrive Delhi
One of our drivers will be on hand to meet you and take you to our quiet hotel in Karol Bagh for the night. They will also meet you the next morning transfer you to your Delhi-Leh flight. If your flight is delayed, please phone our driver.
Day 2 - Fly Leh 3500m
Did you get any sleep? We are up early to board the spectacular flight to Leh, crossing the main Himalayan Barrier to the capital of Ladakh, Tashi Namgyal's 15th century Himalayan capital at 3500m. The clear high air will catch at the throat when we arrive, and now we start the serious business of acclimatization; and eating, as after we settle into our hotel we have a long leisurely breakfast. It will take your body a few days to adjust to this high altitude. It is important to drink plenty of (non-alcoholic) liquids, and do not attempt to rush around. Even walking up the stairs of the guest house will make you breathless at first! We will discuss this in detail. Note that we have planned plenty of acclimatization time into our itinerary.
Days 3, 4 - Leh 3500m
We have two days to explore the bazaars and alleyways of historic Leh, and the striking Indus valley which surrounds it, visiting some of the most ancient forts and gompas of the Tibetan Buddhist world; a little bit of old Tibet. Kim and Joel are virtually honorary residents, and they will be your guide to shopping, gompas, and more. There is lots to explore in this wonderful Central Asian town; the fort and palace, colorful gompas, the mosque, a museum, back alleys with steaming Muslim bread and tiny antique shops tucked away, colorful fruit and vegetable bazaars and polo fields.
Day 5 - Drive Panji 3450m (via Alchi Gompa)
Our crew will have headed off early to set up our camp in a grove of willow trees in the hamlet of Panji, an hour or two before the gorges where Nepali road workers are busy blasting a road. The drive is spectacular, as our jeeps climb away from Leh, we see the distant Ladakh and Karakoram range, the Khardung La (pass), the highest road in the world, and the Indus valley. You get a clear idea of why Leh, at the foot of the ranges, was situated there. We pass the 500 year old world heritage site of Basgo, where we stop for tea, and climb to the monastery and palace, currently being lovingly restored. I we have time, we will make a side excursion to the 1000 year old Alchi Gompa, perched on the side of the Indus in a lovely, checkered valley. We should arrive late afternoon after a full day, and tea will be ready. Kim and Joel will introduce you to your tents and talk you through the daily routine. Note our camp is lower than Leh; good acclimatizing.
Day 6 - Trek Honupatta 3840m
An easy days walk but the first at elevation so it is important to cover up legs, arms, and head, use good sunglasses and drink lots. After an hour on a dusty road we cross the new bridge and make elevation gently through a convoluted gorge of sandy rock, with views of incredible spires of rock towering above at every corner; enlivened by the vivid almost fluorescent pink of the Himalayan rose. It is hard not to believe in a guiding spirit when you see this perfect bloom complementing the rush of the river through this high desert gorge. After two hours we emerge into the village of Honupatta, with its ancient carved mani walls and chortens, and walk another hour to the rickety bridge that leads to our camp.
Day 7 - Honupatta 3840m
We are going high so we take a rest day here for extra acclimatization. For years we have wanted to spend more time in this old village. But more, we have wanted to investigate the high pastures we see the villagers taking their flocks off to every day. Join us, or simply relax and enjoy the peace.
Day 8 - Trek Photoksar 4080m
Our first pass as we ascend a gentle valley along the riverside, and cross the 5000m Sirsir La 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. Certainly one of the most photographed. The villager, herding their flocks of sheep and goats, will be out to meet us en force.
Day 9 - Trek Singge La Valley Camp 4700m
We walk through morning fields with villagers setting out for high pastures to the tiny notch in the skyline that marks the Bumiktse La, and at 4400m take in the spectacle of Photosakar behind us and the distant Utah-like bulk of the Singge (lion) mountain of the Singge La pass ahead of us. This valley is the high pastures of the Photosakar villagers, and we pass their herds all day en route to camp at the base of the pass.
Day 10 - Trek Yelchung 4000m
Up and away early to catch the views across Ladakh and Zanskar from the 5000m plus Singe La, and then a drop into the canyon that leads to the isolated village of Yelchung, with its 500 year old gompa and delightful 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. Trekking in Ladakh you get used to certain realities, like sitting at camp, drinking tea, and looking at tomorrows pass!
Day 11 - Trek Nyeraks 3640m
We climb the sandy hillsides away from camp to the small Chocho Khuri La at 3865m, then drop to 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, on its little 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. We camp on the side of the village, and have many village visitors during the rest of the day and the next morning. The small village gompa is wonderful, a real relic of times past ...
Day 12 - Trek Bear Camp 4300m
Another day, another pass; it's an early morning climb to start the day, over 1000m straight up and a tough walk, with the trail at times following the irrigation canal the villagers have created to tap snowmelt from the high peaks all around. By noon we should be looking back across the serrated ridges we have crossed from the top of the 4800m Takti La, and by 1 o'clock we should be on the second pass, a grassy alp where we lunch. 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) ... also good for roasting marshmallows.
Day 13 - Trek Karmafu 4010m
We have an easy four hour's walk today to our camp on a plateau rising above the river valley; time to enjoy the views, and observe the blue sheep and ibex that roam the hillsides here. The walk is lovely, along the riverside, and sometimes quite adventurous; if there has been much snow in the winter, we will have to cross a snow bridge over the river, and there is a high, exposed trail over the river in another section, followed by a narrow trek through a canyon following the stream. We always stay together in this valley, as we did see bears in 2003, either Himalayan Black Bears or Himalayan Brown Bears. See note above, but we're also on the look-out for snow-leopard, fox and wolf prints and scat.
Day 14 - Trek Zangla Doksa 3370m
A small col above our camp takes us along a willow lined river, and we then gradually ascend to the Namtse La, a desert-like pass at 4430m, where we lunch and hopefully bask in the sun. Then we 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 do 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 to our riverside camp, Zangla Doksa (doksa means nomadic sheep settlement in Ladakhi, but the sheep only pass through our campsite!).
Day 15 - Trek Pishu 3370m
An easy but interesting day, as we trek up to Zangla village, past the ani gompa (nunnery), and visit our friend's Zanskari house in town (next to the King of Zangla's house) if the family is around. Then the highlight; an excursion to an ancient 'dzong', or Ladakhi palace/fortress, with a wonderful, 'secret' prayer room filled with relics and Buddhist treasures, many hundreds of years old. It's a steep climb up, but worth it for the chance to explore this palace, and for the views of the Zanskar valley and Zangla village below. Don't miss peeking into the crumbling chortens en route up and down for small 'tsatsas' inside. We cross the Zanskar river on a good bridge, and camp across the way below Pishu village in a lovely, grassy campsite next to a stream and the river. The kids will be out, as will the 'bungboos', or donkeys!
Day 16 - Trek Hanumil 3300m
Ahead of us stretches the wide plateau of the Central Zanskar valley; behind us the blue tinted Himalayan barrier. In the distance across this plain, tiny dots are livestock being led to pasture as Zanskaris go about their work. Our destination is Hanumil, a small hamlet where the Zanskar turns a corner and drops into the Zanskar gorges, accessible only by kayakers, or in winter, our intrepid trekkers. An hour takes us to the bridge to the small village of Pidmo, and another three hours brings us blessed shade at the Hanumil campsite. And their shop normally has beer!
Day 17 - Trek Snertse 3640m
We are now on the 'main' trekking route across Zanskar, the classic traverse with all the passes. We follow the river for a couple of hours before turning to climb gently to the Parfi La, from where we see the steep drop to the Oma Chu. An ankle trying descent takes us to the shade at the bridge, where we eat lunch; bulk up for the climb! Then back into the afternoon sun for the switchback climb to what was once one of the most exposed trails in the Himalaya, thankfully widened for a few years now. After an hour we take a 180 degree turn, and a long traverse drops us into the tiny camp of Snertse, nestled at the foot of the next pass, the Hanuma La.
Day 18 - Trek Lingshed 3700m
A long, long, day, but a spectacular one. We start by climbing up a long, gentle valley that widens out after a couple of hours; then the trail gently ascends until, an hour before we reach it, we see the 4950m Hanuma La silhouetted against the Himalayan sky. The top, is, frankly, incredible; not just the drop down, but the breathtaking panorama of serrated peaks and gorges. And as for the trail! Lunch well here; we can see our afternoon route, a good five hours before we get to Lingshed, set at the foot of peaks in its grove of poplars. After arriving and washing off the dust, it is wonderful to join the monks on the sunny terrace of the gompa for salt tea; and views of the oasis of Lingshed below.
Day 19 - Lingshed 3700m
Looking back later, we know you will cherish every minute in this wonderful kingdom. Thus another rest day to linger over, another puja to attend, another gompa sunset ...
Day 20 - Trek Singge High Camp (or Mid Camp) 4670m
Up and around the hillsides where the Lingshed monks gather medicinal herbs for their Amchi (traditional Tibetan doctors) clinic; crossing a small pass to the base of the 4550m Kyupa La; that zig zag above is our route, and we are on top for lunch. After lunch it is a simple traverse around to our camp nestled at the bottom of our next pass, the 'lion', Singge La.
Day 21 - Trek Photosakar 4080m
We climb steeply to the 5050m Singge La from where we can see the next pass, the Bumkitse La, above Photosakar village. The valley between the two passes is normally alive with marmots waking up after their long winter. Photosakar, one of the prettiest villages in Ladakh, is wonderful to return to! The picture to the left is Photosakar.
Day 22 - Trek Niyigutse La High Camp 4580m
Trekking in the Himalaya doesn't get much better than the next few days! After climbing the steep and switch-backing Sirsir La at 4805m out of Photosakar, we drop down to the river, wade (carefully) to the other side, and climb over a small ridge to our campsite in the opposite valley. The camp looks up to jagged spires, which glow in yellows and oranges at sunset, and is surrounded by snow peaks, gurgling rivers and grazing yaks. Almost heaven ...
Day 23 - Trek Shilla Sumdo Camp 4100m
Last year as we trekked down this glimmering valley, we thought there was perhaps no more lovely spot on earth. Going up it is a bit more difficult to appreciate, perhaps, and it is a steep climb beside a shallow stream, along loose shale, to the Niyigutse La, at 5050m. But the views; well worth every hard earned step! We will have some lunch at the top if it's not too windy, and then head back down the valley to our gorgeous camp at Shillakong, at the intersection of two large valleys and several smaller ones. We look out from camp at the Yokma La, leading towards Rangdum Gompa and the Suru valley. A trek for next year!
Day 24 - Trek Shilla 3900m
A sandal day, crossing waist high rivers and dashing from shade to shade through a lovely valley of small trees, new leaves, Zanskar rose bushes, wonderful rock formations and no habitations. Four hours of trekking and wading bring us to camp at Shilla, a lovely, quite oasis before we reach civilization the next day.
Day 25 - Trek Lamayuru 3460m
An easy day to finish to the trek as we trek up a narrow gorge to emerge on a trail high above the beautiful Lamayuru Monastery, where we camp below the gompa. Lamayuru is reputed to be the most photographed monastery in Ladakh, so the sunset will be worth taking the cameras out for!
Day 26 - Drive Leh 3500m
A full circle! After three weeks, we retrace our drive to Leh, and head to the hotel for hot showers. And then, of course, out for dinner at Ibex for 'the' best India food in Leh, and plenty of cold beer.
Day 27 - Leh
Because we can; a full day to take in and enjoy Leh, a little holiday at the end of a holiday. Sigh ...
Day 28 - Fly Delhi, Depart
Jet air to Delhi, where our drivers meet you for transfer to your hotel. Most flights leave late afternoon to late evening. If you want to stay an extra night in Delhi, let us know and we will make the necessary arrangements for you.