|The Virgin Vale
About 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 Khampa, 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 monastery.
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 Korakoram Pass.
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 THERE
Road: 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.
WHERE TO STAY
The tourist 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 monastery suitably.
WHEN TO TREK
For 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 until August.
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.)