Kunzum Travel List #12: Zanskar – Remote but not regressive

A mosque and a Buddhist flag in Padum
A mosque and a Buddhist flag in Padum

The road from Kargil to Zanskar is one of the most trying you will drive on. It is either pot-holed, or just a rocky track. When I heard of the soreness inducing drive, I almost turned back from Kargil; on hindsight, I am glad that a stronger will prevailed!

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Zanskar is snowed under for eight months of the year. Its only link to the world is the bumpy 240 kms (150 miles) track to Kargil. The landscape is beautiful and everchanging. But you will barely see a soul on the way, except at some rural settlements. You cannot drive in the winters; your most adventurous option is a trek on the frozen Zanskar river.

Along the way, you will meet bubbly children and beautiful women – all happy to chat. Most speak local dialects though – but smiles will convey a lot. Keep moving, you have a long way to go.

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Yet Padum, Zanskar’s administrative capital, isn’t caught in a time warp. Satellite television brings the world right into this remote habitat. Telephony and broadband Internet are available, though the service is unreliable. Concrete structures are coming up in the town only to mar the beauty of the surrounding peaks; if only someone could propagate the virtues of traditional architecture.


Karsha: A monastery of scholars

The Karsha Monastery
The Karsha Monastery

How do you call 120 lamas to lunch? Blow a conch from the rooftop. There’s no other way to round them up at Karsha monastery near Padum with its multiple floors and labyrinth of rooms and passages one could get lost in. Buddhist master Zanskar Lotsawa Phakpa Sherab built Karsha in the 11th century, when introducing Buddhism to the valley. Its 30 buildings, constructed cascade-style along a hill face, came up gradually over the centuries. Other masters like Tungpa Gyaltsa Pa, Thapuwa Dhamcheu Gyaltsen and Dupkhang Guelek Gyatso consolidated Karsha as a hub of Buddhist studies.

Karsha has always hosted the best of Buddhist scholars in the past. Locals called them alaks (precious lamas), and showered them with valuable gifts. Many of these gifts are still in Karsha, though not well maintained. Some NGOs are raising funds to preserve and display them appropriately.

The monastery is also home to young lamas of all ages, ever willing to engage in friendly banter and antics. They love to be photographed. Sporting sober expressions to begin with (after all, they are men of religion in the making), they can’t hold this sobriety for too long though. They smile, grin, snort, pucker their lips, suck in their cheeks, blow out, widen their eyes, stick out their tongues – some even make bear hug poses, or pull each other’s ears. A bit of jostling is not  uncommon, ad they try to push others out of the camera’s frame. A couple of fights add to the show. Boys will be boys.


Love is fine but faith matters

Padum is a small town of about 1400 residents, with two distinct pockets for  Buddhists and Muslims. A mosque with a Buddhist flag nearby marks the divide. Everyone is happy in their compartments but for some interruptions. Like when Cupid pairs a Muslim with a Buddhist. Then both communities flare up, leaving the couple no choice but to flee to Leh.

Ghulam Ali Baig is a descendant of an inter-religion marriage. He was manning his uncle’s Internet cafe in Padum when we met; his university in Jammu was closed due to political disturbances. He told me the two communities had come to blows some years earlier when the tehsildar (local administrator) granted some land to Buddhists to make a shopping mall. Trouble started when the Muslims saw it as their land. Things cooled down only when the property was divided equally.

Ghulam’s Muslim grandfather married a Buddhist. There was no problem at that time, but society evidently lost its tolerance along the way. Who poisons these minds living so far away?

An evening walk is good for making friends

When in Padum just step out for a walk. And you will come back with a great friends’ circle – from six year old girl Zarina who wants to be a cop someday to an older lot always happy to smile and chat. Language is not an entry barrier. Most kids speak decent Hindi and English – schooling and television helps. Forget Facebook, these are friends you will remember for life.


A villager in Padum
A villager in Padum
Zarina (in yellow scarf) with her friends
Zarina (in yellow scarf) with her friends
Young girls out for a walk in Padum
Young girls out for a walk in Padum

Zanskar: Travel Tips

* Zanskar can only be approached by road from Kargil, 240 kms (150 miles) away.
* It is best you plan the Kargil – Padum journey in one day unless you want to camp on the way.
* Rangdum, roughly half way, has some eateries and a camp to spend the night in. You eat here to live only. Suggest you order only Maggi noodles, the cooks don’t distinguish themselves with anything else.
* Accommodation and food is basic at best in Padum – don’t complain.
* The road is closed much of the year except June – September.

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  1. Hey Ajay, how come you have not mentioned about Drang Drung Glacier at PensiLa. It is the high light of this route. One can even travel in this ROAD (if at all if you can call this as a ROAD), just to get the view of this glacier. Nothing else is required. Post the photo in this site for the benefit of other readers. In case if you don’t have one, let me know. I will send you.

    And a trek from Padum to Palmo is one of the best treks in this region. It involves a rigorous 8 days trek in the zanskar valley. A visit to the Phutkal Gompa is the high light of this trek.


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