20-km south of Rangdum stands the Pazila watershed across which lies
Zanskar, the most isolated of all the trans Himalayan Valleys. The
Panzela Top (4,401 m) is the picturesque tableland adorned with two
small alpine lakes and surrounded by snow-covered peaks.
As the Zanskar road winds down the steep slopes of the watershed to
the head of the Stod Valley, one of Zanskar's main tributary
valleys, the majestic "Drang-Drung" glacier looms into full view. A
long and winding river of ice and snow, the Drang-Drung" is perhaps
the largest glacier in Ladakh, outside the Siachen formation. It is
from the cliff-like snout of this extensive glacier that the Stod or
Doda River, the main tributary of river Zanskar, rises.
The Mountainous Panorama
Zanskar comprises a
tri-armed valley system lying between the Great Himalayan Range and
the Zanskar mountain; The three arms radiate star-like towards the
west, north and south from a wide central expanse where the region's
two principal drainage's meet to form the main Zanskar River.
It is mainly along the course of this valley system that the
region's 10,000 strong, mainly Buddhists population lives. Spread
over an estimated geographical area of 5,000-sq-kms, high-rise
mountains and deep gorges surround Zanskar. The area remains
inaccessible for nearly 8 months a year due to heavy snowfall
resulting in closure of all the access passes, including the Penzela.
Today, Zanskar has the distinction of being the least interfered
with microcosms of Ladakh , and one of the last few surviving
cultural satellites of Tibet. Within the mountain ramparts of this
lost Shangrila stand a number of ancient yet active monastic
establishments. Some of these religious foundations have evolved
around remote meditation caves believed to have been used by a
succession of famous Buddhist saints for prolonged meditation in
pursuit of knowledge and enlightenment.
the nomadic shepherds who originally roamed the grazing pastures of
the Tibetan plateau, would have been familiar with the high passes
into Zanskar many centuries before the villages of the Zanskar or
Indus valley were established.
In the 11th century, the eminent scholar Ringchen Brangpo wandered
the Zanskar valley selecting sites from the 108 monasteries that
were to be found throughout the west Himalayas. At the same time,
legend has it that the sage Naropa meditated at the site of Sani
The Advent of Foreign Travellers
The famous Hungarian explorer Coso de Koros was one of the first
European travelers to visit the region. He spent nearly a year, in
1826-27, at the monastery of Phugthal translating Buddhist texts
from Ladakhi into English. An inscription of his name can be still
found in the monastery.
A few years later, the Dogra general Zorawar Singh led his army over
the Umasi La during the conquest of Ladakh and the Zanskar. In 1834
he reduced the powers of the royal families in both Padum and Zangla
to a nominal status and established the fort at the village of
Pipiting just north of Padum. He is also said to have paid a small
fortune to hire a local guide to lead his army directly across the
passes of the Zanskar Range to the Indus Valley in Order to mount a
surprise attack on the king of Ladakh.
The Dogra conquest was recorded by Thomas Thomson, a member of the
East India Company's Boundary Commission crossing the Umasi La in
June 1848 en route through the Zanskar and Indus Valleys to the
On the route to Zanskar, Panikhar, which is commonly considered to
be on the border of the Suru Valley, is an important place. There is
a high pass between Panikhar and Sankoo, a moderately sized valley
about 42-km from
Kargil, Ladakh . Zorawar Singh and his forces entered Ladakh
from the Suru Pass in 1832 en route to conquer Tibet. He built a
fort whose ruins stand to this day.
The Panzella Pass is situated at an elevation of more than 4,200 m
over the Zanskar range (Penzella mountains). It separates Zanskar
from the Suru valley and other parts of Ladakh. On either side of
the pass there are camping grounds used by migratory grazier
communities and travelers. At the top, an enchanting view of the
surrounding ranges and countryside greets the visitor.
At the top of the pass, there are two springs of greenish water
credited by legend to be the birthplace of the progenitors of the
famous Zanskar breed of ponies. Different forms of vegetation come
up around the pass soon after the snow melts in summer. These
include many species, which have medicinal value. Marmots live in
burrows, moving to lower elevations in winter. The brown bear is
also found on the slopes of the Penzela Pass.
The Penzela glacier, where the Suru River arises, is situated on one
of the flanks of this pass. On the Zanskar side, an extensive
stretch of flat land is present at the foot of the pass. It is
dissected by a number of streams and supports riverine vegetation,
which becomes thick in summer. This is an ideal camping ground for
graziers and trekkers.
The Penzela Pass remains open only from May to September, being
closed for the rest of the year due to heavy snowfall.
Karsha is another large settlement across the river from Padam, at a
distance of about 8-km from the latter. It has a small market,
school, dispensary and post and telegraph facilities. There is also
a monastery at Karsha, which is revered by the population living in
the surrounding region.
HOW TO REACH
The 240-km long Kargil-Padum road, of which the first 90-km stretch
is paved, remains opened from around mid July to early November. The
J&K SRTC operates a thrice-weekly bus services from Kargil. However
groups can charter A-Class or even Super-Deluxe buses to visit
Zanskar, including the interior places of interest like Stongdey,
Zangla and Karsha. Jeeps and Gypsy taxis can also be hired at Kargil.
During June and early July, prior to opening of the road, it is
recommended to walk into Zanskar from Panikhar or Parkachik onwards.
In June, the summer is at its height in the region and the climate
is ideal for trekking along the route free from vehicular traffic of
any kind and when the countryside is freshly rejuvenated into life
after months of frigid dormancy.
Complex at Padum provides furnished rooms. There is catering
arrangement in the complex, while camping place nearby is available
for budget tourists travelling with personal tents. Padum town has
several private hotels where rooms with basic facilities are
available. At Karsha dormitory accommodation is available in the
newly build inn where basic vegetarian food is also provided. In the
distant villages like Stongdey, Zangla, Sani, etc., accommodation
can be sought from the villagers either on payment or in exchange of
a suitable gift. Some monasteries may also take in guests, through
more as a gesture of goodwill than on purely commercial
consideration. Of course the guest is expected to compensate the
WHEN TO TREK
most people, the timing of a trek out of Padum is determined by the
opening of the motorable road from Kargil over the Pentse La. The
pass is normally cleared of snow by the beginning of July, and
generally remains open until the end of October.
The alternative is to trek from Panikhar or Rangdum over the Pentse
La. This can be completed in May, although it is advisable not to
cross the high passes leading out of Zanskar until the end of June.
By this time the villagers begin to cross the Singge La, the Umasi
La and the Shingo La and Phitse La. These times should also be noted
if one is planning to trek into the Zanskar Valley from Lamayuru,
Leh or Darcha. The passes remain open until the middle of October,
although freak storms in September have occasionally required treks
to be re-routed.
River crossings also need to be considered when planning a trek. In
particular, the route from Padum to the Markha valley follows gorges
where the late spring snow melt makes the rivers difficult to cross
For the intrepid, there are winter trails linking the Zanskar valley
with the Indus. From late January through February, the villagers
and monks follow the route over the snow bridges that form in the
depths of the gorges. When the ice begins to thaw, they follow a
route over the Cha Cha La to the Khurna valley and then trek down to
its confluence with the Zanskar River. Here there are some places to
ford the Zanskar River to reach Niimu and Leh. This route is
favoured by the locals in the springtime, until the deep snows on
the Pentse La begin to thaw in May.
Phukthal: 70-km (Approx.)