Jamie McGuinness Lobsang, star organizer

 

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The Shingo La early in the season

The Shingo La early in the season - 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!

Why 25 days? Trekking Zanskar in three weeks involves big compromises, either just touching the main valley with the Shingo La and Phirtse La combination, or using the interrupting roads and then partly missing the still very traditional rural Zanskar.

Why the slow start? Any Zanskar trek involves crossing 5000+m passes, and so acclimatization is critical and requires real thought to find the balance especially as years ago the trek start was two days longer, now shortened by driving directly to Zanskar Sumdo. Starting with the Shingo La 5095m is already ambitious, but doable; however the Phirtse La is nearly 500m higher...

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 two-thirds 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 or via Shimla is an option though, do ask!

Warming up on the Hampta Pass is an idea, but snowy trouble at our time of year, and means starting in Delhi-Manali.

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 visit Lamayuru at the end as we drive out.

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

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

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.

The second area where a road is being constructed is at the beginning of the trek. Once we used to start walking from Darcha now the road continues up the valley to Zanskar Sumdo (where we drive to) and in the future this road will be pushed over the Shingo La. So roads are pushing through ever further though and do this trek soon!

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.

For this trek you will also need river-crossing sandals.

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).

Photo galleries

Coolness! Here is a best of the 2013 Zanskar Traverse gallery to flick through. See Jamie's Flickr for more pix.

Inspiration

Coolness! Here is a best of the 2013 Zanskar Traverse gallery to flick through. See Jamie's Flickr for more pix.

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.

(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.

Leh from Shanti Stupa

Leh from Shanti Stupa - Jamie

4 - drive Zanskar Sumdo 3980m

We leave early for a long but stunningly beautiful drive on a road that is significantly better than it ever was, and in vehicles better than were available, so surprisingly comfortable by Indian standards. For all except the last hour we are on the Leh-Manali highway so we drive the best of the highway without the worst bit, reveling in some of the most beautiful terrain there is. ...

We camp near the bridge at Zanskar Sumdo which was once our second night's trek, now however the road ends here.

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

Ang Chuk with his Scorpio jeep

Ang Chuk, one of our regular drivers, with his turbo Scorpio jeep - Jamie

5 - trek Ramjak 4420m

At last we get to stretch our legs with real trekking, even if it is a shorter day as we gain altitude quickly.

6 - rest Ramjak 4420m

We are still on the southern side of the Himalayan range, so relatively green and more moist than over the other side. Acclimatization is important and we probably spend a second night here at this suitable altitude, although moving to the next camp is an option. This is a better as an acclimatization day but can also be dropped if everyone is feeling OK and conditions are good. Assuming we do stay, it is a good day to relax and read that book or wander around taking photos.

Ram Lal's hilarious lead mule who loves her red hair, and works better dressed up with bells and the like - Jamie

7 - trek Chumik Nakpo 4600m

This is another short day's trekking as we climb higher in preparation for crossing the Himalayan pass. Acclimatization is critical; we take that time. Enjoy the mountain views and if you have the energy there is some exploring possible too.

8 - trek Lhakhang ~4600m via Shingo La ~5095m

We start very early, perhaps 3am, as the horses must cross as early as possible so that they don't sink in the soft snow. Initially the walking is easy but higher up the trail will turn to snow and we have to pick our route carefully. There are several false tops, be warned!

Finally at the real top of the pass there is a glorious snowy panorama and we descend into Zanskar, having crossed the Great Himalaya range and the main barrier to Zanskar. We have a few camping spots to choose from, depending on how long the team took over the pass. Regardless, they all have incredible mountain panoramas.

The iconic Gumbaranjon - Jamie

9 - trek Kargyak 4050m

Today is one of my favourite Zanskar trekking days as we descend gently on grassy plains initially with the sheer Gumbaranjon still in view, always spectacular. Perhaps just before scenic Kargyak we have lunch and camp in a peaceful field a little after the village.

Zanskar camping - Jamie

10 - Trek Karu/Testa 3870m

The coolness of the morning soon dissipates as we descend in the hot summer sun however what a scenic day. The villages, the whitewashed stupas...

Often we have lunch in a local house, and then and a stream-cooled beer at camp.

11 - Trek Phuktal 3820m

Leaving the main Zanskar Valley behind, we trek up this major side valley into an impressive gorge then in time for lunch we cross suspension bridge over to the well cared for campsite and curious hotel of Phuktal. Phuktal Gompa monks will wander through the camp and have a chat as many do speak some English.

Heading up on the good but exposed trail to Phuktal - Jamie

12 - trek Yaytah 4000m

We have another look around this steeply set monastery, perhaps even catch morning prayers. The stunning photos of Phuktal in the 1980's were one of the features that drew me to Ladakh, and it is still a highlight in a trek that features a highlight virtually every day. Leaving the main Zanskar Valley behind, we are trekking to remoter areas, up the still pumping Tsarap Chu. We camp away from villages for change near the junction of the river we follow tomorrow.

At Phuktal Gompa and Monastery

Phuktal Gompa (left top corner) - Jamie

13 - trek Shade 4220m

Another glorious day's trekking (not two hours as the locals once told us!). At our lunch spot, have you ever seen water that crystal-clear?

14 - 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 ...

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

15 - trek 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.

16 - 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.

17 - trek Zangla Sumdo 3850m

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. Great care is required in one section; Lobsang or myself should assess/check out the landslide area first.

18 - 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.

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.

19 - trek Honara / 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.

20 - trek Bear Valley camp 3980m

Assuming you are up for more adventure, following is a quick description of the "Bear Valley" route. However the first decision point about this route is the bears. In the past they have not been aggressive however in the last couple of years close to Dibling, they have acquired a taste for mules and cows, and so we will seek local advice as to what is best for our team. The second is can we get through? This is an adventurous route that can be blocked, although we do aim for this route as a preference.

The alternative is the standard Zanskar trek, initially hot trekking to Nyete but as with everywhere here, the character of the land changes higher up, as ever the panoramas are gorgeous, and even more so from the top of the Hanuma La 4710m, overlooking Lingshed. This area is justly famous trekking, even if the coming road has changed the trekking character, but really has added to the convenience of the gompa and village. As of 2015 the road head was still above Yelchung so still a day's walk from Lingshed and will probably stay that way for a couple more years. Once it reaches Lingshed, I am guessing it will become a major destination for the overnight tripper from Leh.

For Bear Valley we were camped in the main Zanskar Valley and now exit, which means a surprisingly steep climb, but the distraction is the abundant Himalayan rose bushes and the remote feeling. The climb may have been steep but the Namtse La at 4430m isn't too high, and our descent to camp is gentle and quick. This is what we call Bear Valley, for want of finding a better name, and have indeed seen bears here, and signs of them when we didn't actually run into them on the trail.

Bear Valley camp

Our delightful "Bear Valley" campsite - Jamie

21 - trek Lankat camp

We camp at the last possible place before the pass so that tomorrow's distance is manageable. It is a rock hoodoo camp.

22 - Trek Nyerog / Nyeraks 3710m

A tough but rewarding day today. We ascend with the panoramas growing ever more grand, to the top of the Nerak La (Tarti La; 5000m) and to the breath-taking panoramas. We traverse and ascend to the surprisingly rarely visited yet delightful village of Nyerog.

Neraks, a wonderful camp - Jamie

23 - 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

24 - drive Leh

Sadly our trekking has come to an end as we hop into our waiting jeeps for the approximately 6 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 25 - 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!