Jamie McGuinness Lobsang, star organizer

 

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Camping in Zanskar, near where Philip saw a snow leopard; dining tent and members tents not shown - Jamie McGuinness

Zanskar trek thoughts

This is still an absolutely classic adventure trek that should be on your trek bucket list, and with our variations that avoid roads, it is still that wonderful Zanskar trekking scenery and a surprisingly adventurous and remote trek. In 2013 Filip even saw a snow leopard!

Traditionally this trek started in Manali but logistically is now more challenging with limited flights and a terrible road from Manali to the start of the trek, so we begin in Leh. We drive a third of the Leh-Manali highway, the rebuilt section, and this is still one of the more incredible road journeys of the world, so a bonus. Starting in Manali is an option though, do ask!

Why this season? Zanskar is already a hot time in the base of the valleys, it gets even hotter, and busy, in July.

Traditionally, this was a trek from Darcha to Lamayuru but roads have eaten away at each end, however the core of the trek is still intact, and that is what we trek, and can visit Lamayuru at the end as we drive out.

Why a maximum of nine? Our dining tent is comfortable with nine plus Jamie and Esther.

Zanskar trek background

In the 1970's staying on a houseboat and trekking in Kashmir was relatively popular however Ladakh and Zanskar were closed, no foreigners allowed at all. That was the mystic, and the fact when it opened in 1977, it lived up to it legendary status catapulted it to immediate popularity. Zanskar treks were run by all major trekking companies from their mail out and travel agency brochures. Lonely Planet's first 1986 Trekking in the Indian Himalaya probably featured it however my first exposure was from the cutest 1987 guide book by Artou that featured a concertina page for each of ten trek routes and an accompanying satellite photo map with the trails marked on it, which is still copied even today almost three decades later. I trekked the Markha Valley solo in 1988 as my first Himalayan trek and in my first real exploration managed to sneak onto a bus for the Leh to Manali route before the route was open to foreigners. Parts were a bulldozed road, other parts were just wheel ruts along the plains.

Yes, I have mentioned Darcha to Lamayuru as a classic trek many times. To get a sense of just how significant it was, and for some historic photos, do have a look through Ladakh 1974 - 2008: A Photographic Homage by Jaroslav Poncar, a gorgeous book, and I have one in Leh for you to browse. Jaroslav also has small versions of the Ladakh photos on his website.

Zanskar roads

In the 1980's and 1990's the Darcha to Lamayuru trek via Padum was the most popular and considered the best trek in the region, and indeed more or less the only way to see the region, other than taking a long, rough drive over the Pensi La 4400m/14,436ft (which opened in 1979). However roads are built, they provide opportunity and convenience for the local population, and gradually the trek has been eaten away. First the road near Lamayuru was extended to Wanla, then Hanupatta (where my first trek across Zanskar started from) then extended to Photoksar, where our treks used to end.

Now the road to Padum has been extended in a network covering the main Zanskar valleys which is wonderful for development but less so for the trekker. That area was always hot, long and tedious so we take some delightful, remote side valleys to keep the trek in character.

Guide books

Although the Zanskar trek is featured in all India trekking guide books, none of them cover our entire, unique route.

Trailblazer: Trekking in Ladakh by Charlie Loram - older

Lonely Planet: Trekking in the Indian Himalaya - also older

Cicerone: Trekking in Ladakh by Radoslav Kucharski and this guide book is especially for the hardcore trekking solo. He also has an Amazon Kindle edition of this book.

Radek Kucharski's personal ladakh.pl site has tons of useful info.

Maps

The best maps for our trek are the Ladakh & Zanskar trekking maps by Editions Olizane, the south and central maps. The south map covers the start while the central covers the end. These maps are available on the internet and in Leh.

Why Project Himalaya?

In a nutshell: healthy, tasty meals; caring, experienced crew; quality camping gear, and more. We really care and offer amazing service in every well-thought-out detail, and our trek service is better than any other company so that you can just turn up with the right gear and enjoy.

We have been running this trek since 2000 and haven't tired of it.

A delicious, healthy dinner coming up

Lobsang serves a delicious meal of assorted flavourful but non-spicy and not oily curries - Jamie

Experience level

This is pure trekking, no climbing, but you should not be scared of heights as some of the trails are relatively challenging. You don't need to be an experienced trekker however you must know that you love being in the great outdoors and like the concept of camping. It is likely we will partly walk on snow over the Shingo La (pass) however nothing more than gaiters are required; no crampons or ice ax.

Your crew

Jamie and Lobsang and the rest of the crew have trekked this route many times and are totally familiar with the area. We use good tents (mostly Mountain Hardwear) and have a spacious dining tent and serve delicious and healthy meals. Ram Lal takes care of our horses and mules and we have yet to lose a day to lost horses, and if you have trekked a lot in Ladakh you will appreciate how unique this is.

Trek comfort

Our trek set up is perhaps the best, the most comfortable there is in Ladakh. We have comfortable, warm dining inside and carry an outside dining set with super-comfortable chairs as well. We provide a thick (by trekking standards) mattress to save you flying with a bulky carry mat (closed cell mattress), have clean filtered water available at camp all the time, us good, appropriate tents, roomy for a single and or a palace for doubles. We really have worked at making our trek set up the best, and with horses carrying the loads there is no guilt about the extra gear.

Jamie's Flickr photo sets - explore them!

To see the detailed itinerary and more photos use a laptop/desktop browser or tablet in landscape (and hit refresh).

Inspiration

See some shots from our 2016 trek: Dave Currie's Ladakh 2016 on Flickr.

And below is a best of the 2013 Zanskar Traverse gallery to Flickr through.

2013 Best Zanskar

Click the photo to go to Flickr or use the arrow keys to see them here within this page.

Detailed itinerary

We plan to follow the itinerary however roads wash out, or are extended, occasionally people get sick, logistical challenges arise, or we hear of a better campsite, and so we will adapt it as needed.

This longform itinerary is a work in progress!

(Day 0 - arrive Delhi / early Leh arrival)

We spend three nights in Leh, so reasonable acclimatization to the 3480m/11,415ft altitude but if you are new to altitude or to Leh, perhaps plan to arrive one day early and we will arrange transfers and hotel and show you around.

Included in all our Ladakh treks are a couple of sightseeing trips, with or without a cultural guide (your choice) and it is your choice of where to go; many people joining are previous trekkers so have seen some places previously.

If you are more ambitious we can also help you arrange a day or overnight trip to Alchi (~3100m) and Basgo Gompas or further afield Lamayuru (~3500m), a day rafting trip on the Zanskar River or or hammer down the Khardung La on a mountain bike (best a few days into your Leh sojourn). If you have been working flat out you are welcome to just relax, kick back and de-stress too, and adjust a little more slowly to the time zone change.

Sophie admires a Basgo Gompa mural

Sophie admires the mural at Basgo - Jamie

Day 1 - meet in Leh 3480m

Phew, after a long series of flights, you are here! Look for a Project Himalaya sign or a simple sign with your name on it at the airport, and our wonderful drivers Ang Chuk or Pasang will pick you up.

Jamie meets you at the hotel on your arrival and we discuss altitude health over tea/coffee or breakfast and introduce Leh (if you are a first timer) and show you the better places to eat. Most people crash out for a few hours and spend the day relaxing; do drink plenty of fluids which helps the acclimatization process, perhaps pop some vitamins and let your body adjust to the new time zone.

We normally go out to dinner together, let's meet in the peaceful hotel garden at 6:30pm. We eat at some of our favourite clean (very important!) restaurants: Chopsticks, G Kitchen, Tibet Kitchen, Open Hand and Summer Harvest.

2 - Leh 3480m

This is a day for sightseeing and relaxing. For today perhaps the best plan is to visit some of the world's most revered gompas and monasteries a short distance from Leh. We will help plan and arrange a jeep, and a local cultural guide if you like (included). Usually we arrange as a morning trip with lunch at Leh (or Thikse) then you can relax in the afternoon although we can easily arrange a full day trip.

Choosing where to go is the biggest challenge as there are so many special places to visit. To the east is Shey, Thikse, Hemis, Chemde, Thagthok, Stakna, Matho and Stok, although don't plan on visiting all of them in one day. Thikse also has a good restaurant for lunch.

Heading west out of Leh are Spituk, Phyang, Nyemo where the Indus meets the Zanskar River, and further afield are Basgo, Likir and Alchi.

We chanced upon this moving ceremony at Matho Gompa - Jamie

3 - Leh 3480m

After gentle sightseeing yesterday we exercise a little more today. In the morning we might wander up to the palace and gompa above Leh, and before dinner, perhaps up to the Peace/Shanti Stupa for a Leh sunset panorama.

Tomorrow we stay at ~4000m so at minimum we need three nights here in Leh prior to moving higher - which we have :)

Leh from Shanti Stupa

Leh from Shanti Stupa - Jamie

4 - drive Lhatoo 4000m with sightseeing

At last we are on our way. It is only a couple of hours drive so we will stop at a gompa or two en route. Once at our camp, there are amazing views of the rugged canyon walls just a few minutes walk away.

Ang Chuk with his Scorpio jeep

Lunch laid out, come and get it - Jamie

5 - drive Gatta Loops, trek Tsometsik 4100m

Our horses are waiting for us and once we are loaded up we trek a few hours along the river to leave the road behind and get into true wilderness. We are following the Tsarap Chu, a river well known to us both in its upper reaches, and also where it meets the Zanskar, doubling the volume and turning into a fearsome river.

Magnificent scenery and a view of one of our favorite camps on another area, taken from the road - Jamie

6 - trek Tichhip 4000m

7 - trek Normoche 4000m via Zara Chu crossing

8 - trek Trantrag 4100m

Have you ever seen water this crystal-clear? - Jamie

9 - trek Shade 4220m

Another glorious day's trekking (not two hours as the locals once told us!).

A truly captivating scene in real life - Jamie

10 - rest Shade 4220m

This is one of the remotest villages in Ladakh. In 2013 we asked the locals how many trekkers come through in a season, the first answer was "lots". However asking further, lots meant perhaps five groups, of which Project Himalaya is usually one ...

Do watch the sheep-goat flocks being herded in during the early evening. Often they come right through our camp, so you will get some warning.

Sadly most of the younger people have left this village, a lack of opportunity and especially a lack of healthcare.

Remote, peaceful Shade village - Jamie

11 - trek Nuri Chu side stream camp 4280m via Rotang La 4900m, Lar La 4680m

Leaving Shade we take a yak herding route up a side valley, climbing to a pass with ever more expansive views behind us. Over the first pass we normally meet Shade families camped in yak hair tents tending the animals, which are kept out of the village area when there are crops in the fields. Tea in a tent?

Continuing, we drop down to cross the stream and climb again for the second pass of the day, perhaps having a lunch break part way up. We are treated to more stunning panoramas at the top, and thankfully it isn't too far down to our camp by the sparkling stream.

The colours and textures are striking around here - Jamie

12 - trek Yarinchun 4430m

This is a remote area but there is still a definite trail with never-ending views of the "flame" rocks opposite. We have some steam crossings ahead, carry your river sandals, and don't dawdle too much as the streams rise in the later afternoon. Camp is gorgeous as usual.

Dont they just look like flame rocks? Especially on sunset too - Jamie

13 - trek Zangla Sumdo 3850m via Pangdang La 5150m

It is another sandals day, although not initially. Leaving camp, the ascent is gentle at first but becomes a steady climb to the top of the Pandang La, 5150m, the highest pass on our trek. The extensive views are glorious, especially out towards the Chacha La and Jumlam route. The price though, after an initial straightforward descent to our lunch spot, is increasing steep areas and crossings of the steam amid the willows.

Across the Pangdang La, the panorama is simply gorgeous - Jamie

14 - trek Zangla camp 3600m

It feels refreshingly remote and simply refreshing too, as we cross the stream repeatedly, making our way down the valley. At a main river junction we see signs of shepherd camps again but don't be lulled by this or the relatively flat nature of the small trail so far. Now we descend into another adventurous and forbidding but photogenic gorge with perhaps 15 stream crossings before the terrain eases. This is also ibex country, and we have spotted some on most treks through here; it could be ibex have spotted us every trek though, as they are hard to spot. Look and you will see!

Entering the Zangla canyon - Jamie

Suddenly the valley opens out as we are close to the village of Zangla, only a ridge to traverse up and around to the ridge top palace-gompa. Suddenly we see the huge main Zanskar valley, dotted with small villages surrounded by fields. We drop down to camp on a grassy area near the main Zanskar river, that like everything else in the valley, is a bit bigger; wider and faster too, that we are accustomed to. By now it is apparent why we take our side route through Shade, and just what an amazing and adventurous route it is.

15 - trek Hanumil / Zanskar sightseeing 3600m

The crew will resupply, perhaps taking a jeep in to Padum, and we can trek or take a jeep to the next camp, the location of which will depend on our route choice ahead. If by jeep, then it is partly a rest day.

Camping in the huge main Zanskar Valley - Jamie

16 - trek Nyete via Parpi La 3900m

17 - trek Sumdo via Hanuma La 4710m

Esther jumps for joy, another pass crossing - Jamie

18 - trek Lingshed

This is a shorter trekking day so giving time to visit the monastery.

Approaching Lingshed (and see the top banner for a Lingshed Monastery photo) - Jamie

19 - trek Yelchung 3900m / road head camp

Between us and the Sengge La is the mighty Zanskar River, and the descent is not too far down, crossing it on a seemingly flimsy bridge that has been there for decades - let's see if this bridge was the one that did survive, if it hasn't it will have been rebuilt. The climb is another matter, steady and relatively steep until cresting a small pass to the last village we pass through.

Yulchung is still one of the best-kept secrets of the Lingshed area, a delightfully friendly and stunningly set village that few trekkers ever visit, despite being only a little off one of the main trekking routes.

Having tea, Yelchung - Jamie

20 - drive Leh

Sadly our trekking has come to an end as we hop into our waiting jeeps for the approximately 8 hour drive back to Leh. The first obstacle is the 4960m Sengge La, a once remote pass that has poisonous flowers over the other side. Poisonous to horses, but hopefully not to our jeeps. The view from the top is as stunning as any, those colours and textures. Down the pass and over a small bump comes perhaps what was the most photographed or certainly the most admired village view in the region, Photoksar. Again, it was a dramatic photo of this village that surely inspired not just me but dozens of trekkers, years ago.

We are not done with the passes yet, the Sirsir La at 4805m comes next, and another majestic panorama that Jaroslav Poncar snapped, providing inspiration years ago. Instead of taking days to discover these views we take hours, and in some way lessening the achievement; luckily by trekking through Kargyak, Phuktal and Shun Shade we have explored on foot some other utterly memorable panoramas.

Depending on how the last section of the trek has worked out, we also have the option of visiting Lamayuru Gompa on the way back, let's see how the timing is.

Statna Gompa in the Indus Valley

Stakna Gompa, with this view we know we are getting close to Leh - Jamie

Day 21 - trip end

You are free to take the morning flight to Delhi or bus to Manali for the long way back, or just enjoy more time in this central Asian town of yore.

Julley!