Roads untravelled in Zanskar Valley

Posted on Posted in Nomad Life

With my one-day preparation for this expedition I felt a bit respectful of what awaited us to get to Phuktal to electrify it: a day of cycling a 1,5 days of hiking to reach Phuktal monastery, working in the altitude of around 3700m and moving up and down 300 stairs, carved into the stone at the monastery’s precincts, one day hiking back (what we’d do in a 1,5 days before), countless hours of sitting on the bus, traversing through streams and balancing on edges of cliffs in Zanskar Valley.

On the edge in Zanskar Valley
On the edge in Zanskar Valley
Around the corner from Phuktal
Around the corner from Phuktal
A well-deserved break
A well-deserved break
Our journey
Our journey

Leh to Kargil: moonlike landscape

After we’d got José’s bag (the story mentioning the lost&found at Leh military airport is part of the Welcome to India story) we were good to go, so our drivers took us to Kargil as fast as they could. Now, the roads are winding and sometimes it seemed like only ONE car can pass, but we learnt to not to believe our eyes in these situations and rather trust our driver who drives those roads every month. But no matter how hard he’d tried, we still arrived around 10pm and knowing that we will cycle 40 km the next day, we kindly ignored the need of getting some sleep and hooked ourselves on the last available wifi.

Photos from the moving car just don't do the justice
Photos from the moving car just don’t do the justice
Both cars can surely pass. Easy peasy!
Both cars can surely pass. Easy peasy!

Cycling in the Himalayas

This was the most challenging part for me and I was surprised how much easier it felt biking in the thin air of the Himalayas than in the gym in Bangkok, where I’d trained (for that one day). Especially having Rolf around who knows how to encourage people to go beyond what they think is their limit. Splitting into two groups, I took up the challenge though and joined the faster one and enjoyed the ride, shouting Jullay (Hello in Ladakhi) and Salam Aleikum when passing the villages in Sankoo and Suru Valley. I had the feeling that there are not so many occasions when a group of 30+ people passes through this remote area, so people were justifiably surprised and joyful about us being there. Now, for what it was, it was way easier to cycle in the Himalayas than in the gym – with an incomparably better view!

The GHE team responsible for all this
The GHE team responsible for all this
Cycling in the Himalayas
Cycling in the Himalayas
All of us, hungry sports(wo)men getting fed on a meadow with a view of glamorous Himalayas
All of us, hungry sports(wo)men getting fed on a meadow with a view of glamorous Himalayas

4000 meters above the sea level

Writing this post from the damp heat of Thailand, I struggle to bring myself back to the time when I felt cold – only 2 weeks ago! But time passes fast when you’re having a good time with good people. The ride in from before-Rangdum to after-Padum was spectacular, I wanted to the bus to stop at every corner, trying to snap pictures through the dirty window, flying from one side of the bus to the other. Luckily we had our pee breaks often in places with a great view, so we all rushed out of the bus, peeing or not peeing and took loads of pictures.

Snow will dissapear during the summer months
Snow will dissapear during the summer months
Glaciers in the Himalayas
Glaciers in the Himalayas
Prayer flags are everywhere
Prayer flags are everywhere
Arrived to Rangdum
Arrived to Rangdum

Life in  remote parts of the world

Sonar, our driver, drives those roads in the Himalayan valleys 15 times in a season, from May until October/November when they close by snow and passing to the villages in Zanskar Valley is possible only by foot on the Tsarap river. One of surprising moments that will be stuck with me forever was of the beauty of communication between people living in these remote areas. Sonam detoured our bus to meet his mother who was waiting for him on the side of the road, because three days before he’d let her know he might pass by at some point. So she waited for three days to meet her son, although only for 5-10 minutes. Because time is abundant in the villages and precious when spent with people you love.

When our driver met his family (credit: Padme)
When our driver met his family (credit: Padma)

The locals welcomed us greatly everywhere we came. In Itchar village, everyone brought tea for us and we ended having 15 or so thermos bottles full of milk tea with which we were traditionally welcomed in all the villages we visited. That or the butter tea, which is a salty heavy tea meant for keeping people warm. It is an acquired taste and I think I’d need to drink it more to start liking it.

Monks cooking the butter tea in Rangdum
Monks cooking the butter tea in Rangdum
Typical Ladakhi house, with straw as insulation in cold months
Typical Ladakhi house, with straw as insulation in cold months
Hot milk tea in the thermoses
Hot milk tea in the thermoses
Everyone was curious who's coming
Everyone was curious who’s coming
Women in Itchar
Women in Itchar
Curious kids in Itchar
Curious kids in Itchar

The local women put the best clothes and beautiful jewellery from the region and welcomed us, strangers, as friends. We were lucky to have guys in our team who spoke Ladakhi and understood the locals – the barrier between two different worlds was broken easily and fast. Some of the locals spoke some English, but most of the time, gestures and smiles were the main means of our communication.

People of Anmu village
People of Anmu village
Making new friends
Making new friends

There are too many memorable moments that I want to remember from this trek. Like playing with the school kids in the dusty room in Itchar, watching Itchar women spontaneously perform traditional singing and dancing, drinking a home-brew from my hand as part of the welcoming ceremony at Cha, looking ahead and seeing the winding path in Zanskar valley and looking back and seeing the snow-covered heights of the Himalayas behind, receiving numerous Khata as welcome gifts (particularly beautiful from the monks in Phuktal), watching a cultural show by the villagers who’d trek for a day to Phuktal to celebrate the grid installation with us, the look of Phuktal and Zanskar valley when the lights were on or the countless hours of talks and laughs with Maj, Rolf, Rolf, Graham, Lee, Melinda, Neelima, Sneh, Varun, Jaideep, Aditya, José, Ciara, Becky, Sanjna, Kate, Lynn, Athina, Christian, Reanea, Paras, Tashi, Padma and our tour guides and cooks (I hope I didn’t forget anyone…).

The place is important, but it would be nothing if I hadn’t people to share it with.

Drinking the home brew in Cha
Drinking the home brew in Cha
Ready for some dance?
Ready for some dance?
Tashi's art of drumming and José's art of dancing
Tashi’s art of drumming and José’s art of dancing
Beautiful Zanskar Valley, I'll be back some day
Beautiful Zanskar Valley, I’ll be back some day

2 thoughts on “Roads untravelled in Zanskar Valley

  1. It was a wonderful surprise to meet the GHE team and especially Adriana at the Phuktal Gompa. I was there in search for serenity and tranquility but instead, I ended meeting some lovely people. The energy they brought to the Gompa created a whole new dimension which ‘lit up’ the eyes of the lamas. Reading Adriana’s post brings back memories of my own experience in Zanskar which will forever remain inside of me. All the best and thanks A

    1. You’ve met bunch of dreamers who were destroying the tranquility and serenity by making Phuktal a mess and putting wires and banging walls everywhere. Thanks Sanjeev for the comment, I’m glad you had been part of this experience 🙂 xx

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