More foreigners visit Zanskar than Indians. You could argue there are more foreigners in life than Indians, but that would be a cheeky comment with limited scope for comedy. The one immediate reason you can point to is the road situation. There aren’t many. There are paths or just clearances in mountains. Buses ply the Kargil-Padum route regularly, but it is not mainland India regularly, but Padum Zanskar regularly, which is about twice a week. SUVs are your best bet to travel if you have dates and schedules to keep. Even they only run when at least 4 passengers can be found. It doesn’t always happen.
Mountains and Monasteries
Only two things happen in Zanskar if you don’t always live there: trekking and monasteries. Climb mountains or climb mountains to get to monasteries. Effectively only one thing. They haven’t resorts, there aren’t movies, it isn’t the type for a leisurely holiday. This isn’t where you spend a holiday. This is where you bring sun cream but also bring pain relievers. If you are looking for fun, look elsewhere. If you’re looking for life changing experiences, stab yourself. You’ll be less bored that way.
What is it about mountains that wrings the life out of any enthusiasm releasing source in your mind and body? You climb and climb and yet all you can do is reach a further point on a mountain. It is a bit higher, granted. It’s still a place exactly like the place where you started, but with less circumference. “You find yourself,” you’re told. This is where you stab people. You can’t with a sharp physical object, so use indifference. That’s the best bloodless stabber in the business.
As you’d imagine, Zanskar has many mountains. I can name two: Nun and Kun. They are fun, tall, fair and pointed at the top. They are so handsome, the Darang Durung glacier close to them is melting. To see them in action you have to travel the Kargil-Padum route which has carved a path on other mountains opposite N & K. Those are dull ones, they’re brown and pedestrian. You can barely walk on them. Like all not so pretty ones, they have dandruff falling down like stones. Or is it stones falling like dandruff? You pick, they’re both nasty.
After you survive the potential landslides around Nun and Kun (thanks largely to people with red flags stopping your vehicle after their colleagues up on the mountains confirm it isn’t safe to go forward), you head to your first taste of what Zanskar will be like. There are two roads to reach Rangdum. One along the mountains, which presumably the BRO built (who else can be nuts enough to do that) and the other which branches off from the first one, about 4 kms before Rangdum. Which is better? Neither is paved. One is made of clearing falling rocks and the other runs through a river. 1-1. One is longer, the other shorter. Ah 1-2. One is less uncomfortable, the other is very. Still 1-2. You won’t break a bone.
Rangdum is a pit stop for many. It is a valley with perhaps the most magnificent mountains in the region (as long as you don’t want to climb them). They are lovely. They just stand there stopping as much wind as they can and looking all majestic, like a north Indian dad on a day of his daughter’s wedding. Or like showcases. You don’t climb showcases or fall sick on them because they are at a higher level vertically than you will ever be.
Few stores have sprung up. Few guest houses, one tourist bungalow, a monastery 5 kms away. That’s about that. You get food there. You can stay the night. If you want clean toilets, go to Parkachik’s Alpine Huts. Parkachik is 30+ kms away towards Kargil. 30+ kms here is like 100+ elsewhere (except Bangalore where it is still 30+ kms but without the motion sickness). At night, this road sometimes pulls in the river towards it making driving harder, as if that’s possible.
Pensi La and Khokol
From the unconditionally beautiful Rangdum, you drive on towards the famed Pensi La which, at about 14000 ft, is one of the high points of the tour (just literally, otherwise the mountain is just another mountain with a road attached). When you descend from here, look out for a plant that grows here. It is called Khokol in the local language. Nobody transliterated the name so this could be utter rubbish information. But the plant has stems growing on it which are so edible. And tangy. Supposedly a cure for many ailments in the area, it can tide you over some Maggi sickness.
Zanskar – Dharohar apni
Let’s get quickly onto Padum (even though you can only wish on that route). Padum is Zanskar. It is the place where everything happens. Shops, hotels, restaurants, taxis, camping ground: it is a hub from where you can see other interesting things. There is essentially one major road. It has the taxi stand, some hotels, some shops and a mosque along the way. A couple of kilometers away, there is a Stupa at Pipiting. It apparently has an idol of Padmasambhava on whom Padum is named. Apart from all this, nothing much happens in the town. Really what else can happen here!