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One month Solo Backpacking to Himalayas – Chapter 4 – Zanskar Valley

Chapter 1: The Journey Begins |  Mumbai – Srinagar

Chapter 2: Srinagar – Sonamarg – Meenamarg – Drass – Kargil

Chapter 3 – Kargil – PenziLa – Padum

…Next day, I had a deja-vu. I was reliving my memories and wandering in the foreign land like an inhabitant. Like I came here only yesterday from my Chadar Trek.

I wake up next to Norgun, Phangde and Phanse who were playing with my camera. Yangdom was preparing food for them. After their daily household errands, we leave for Mont Blanc together. I get to spend some quality time with new family members including Palkit who works at a research centre and encourages farmers for cash crop.

Norgun, when I meet her after 6 months

“Julay! Dadaji Pooja hai?” I heard Anisha and Massod’s voice and we embark on to our new expedition.

Padum has a very strong taxi union with overly priced rates to ramble around Padum. We were startled when he quoted Rs. 3000 for a day and said that they only earn in these four months for the entire year.   We tried to look for a few more people to tie up and share the expenses. That is when Masood met Satya, a fellow from close to his town in Tamil Nadu.

My share of transport expenses came upto Rs. 2000 for two days of excursion for the following places –

Sani Monastery -Sani Lake - Dzongkhul Monastery - Zangla - Nunnery - New / Old Palace - Stongde - Karsha Monastery

Apart from this, you can explore all the below places once you are in Padum which was one of the two main capitals of the Zanskar Kingdom, the other being Zangla.

Places to go in and around Padum, Zanskar

Info for all those who are reading this post first hand –

From Kargil, buses leave for Padum every other day at three in the morning. It takes two days to reach Padum with an overnight halt at Rangdum by bus. Alternatively, one can hire a shared cab and reach in a day’s time. Expect a rugged and Bumpy ride through out. If you are riding on bike, keep a day extra in hand. I have rarely seen any biker going back without a flat tire.


Sani Monastery is believed to be the oldest religious site in whole of Ladakh and Zanskar that purportedly goes back to Kushan times erected in 2nd century.

Sani Monastery, Sani, Zanskar

A note about Sani Monastery, Sani, Zanskar

This monastery is at odds with all other monasteries in the region. One, it is the only kind in Zanskar which has nuns. Two, Unlike most Ladakhi monasteries, this monastery is built in the form of a castle on flat ground making it more accessible. Sani monastery is also considered one of the eight holy Buddhist sites in the world.

Lama opening the doors of Sani Monastery

Inside Sani Monastery, Sani, Zanskar

The walls of Sani Monastery are adorned withibrant collection of stucco murals (wall paintings), based on the life of Padmasambhava.

Inside view of Sani Monastery, Sani, Zanskar

Vibrant colours of Sani Monastery, Sani, Zanskar

 The Sani Gompa of Leh Ladakh is also alleged to be related with famous Indian Yogi Naropa. It is believed that the Yogi meditated under the Kanika Stupa, situated in the backyard of its wall complex. Where the Yogi sat for mediation now houses a small room with a veiled bronze statue of the Yogi. Every year the statue is unveiled in late July, i.e. on the eve of the Naro-Nasjal Festival. This is the time when people from all over the Zanskar valley come over to the monastery to be a part of the two day long festival and enjoy a sacred mask dance performed by the lamas. The Sani Naro-Nasjal and Sani Kangyour festivals are other highlights of this Gompa.

Kanika Stupa, Sani Monastery

Lamas in Sani Monastery


Besides being famous for the monastery, Sani village is also known for its glaring fresh-water Sani Lake. Although one can find ample Himalayan Fishes here, but fishing is not allowed due to the sacred nature attributed to the lake by the Buddhist community. Only a slow pace walk besides this gleaming turquoise Sani Lake is enough to take you to the Himalayan trance. Rest all hooch is just a moonshine.

Sani Lake, Zanskar

Mesmerising Grasslands

An elite character of this lake is that it does not freezes throughout the year. Given the winter conditions in Zanskar of – 30 degrees C where everything goes benumb, Sani Lake still aglows light and bright.

Sani Lake

Sani Lake with the Statue in Background

I am so intoxicated by sheep moving around here free as a wind that I could not stop shooting it.

A gorgeous sheep posing

To top it all for all the Cricket fans, all your best stadiums will stand humdrum when you see monks playing on this august grassland. You would want to turn off everything, pack your bags and move to Zanskar right away.


Dzongkhul monastery or Zonkul Gompa is a dark, small and quite monastery located in the Stod valley besides Bardur River. This rarely visited monastery is half an hour drive by road from Padum.

On the way to Zonkul Monastery from Padum, Zanskar

On the way to Zonkul Gompa, Zanskar

Built like a swallow’s nest on a rock facing Ating gorge, the main attraction of Zonkul Gompa is the presence of the beautiful frescoes on the cave walls.

Zonkul Monastery built like a swallow nest

Naropa is said to have meditated in one of the two caves built here. Impressions of Naropa’s ceremonial dagger and staff are also said to be in the rocks in his meditation cave which attracts many pilgrims. Until about the 1960s there were some 20 resident monks, but the numbers have dropped sharply in more recent times.

Steps up to Zonkul Monastery

unfortunately, the lamas have gone to Sani Monastery for a festival and we only get to see the exteriors of this gompa.


Zonkul Monastery first look

Nonetheless, the trek up and down the hill was pretty engaging. As we reached the top, the gorge before us was walloping and giant.

Waterfall Zonkul Monastery Gorge


Zangla, located at pinnacle of 12,879 feet and at a distance of about 32 kms from Padum, was once one of the capitals of the Zanskar valley. Zangla is also the take-off point for Padum-Lamayuru, Padum-Markha as well as for the Chadar trek over the frozen Zanskar river to Nimu, which becomes feasible only during the middle of the winter.

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Zangla in Winters

The roads to Zangla are in much better condition than Kargil to Padum.

Roads to Zangla

In fact, the work is in progress to connect these roads to Leh via the route of Chadar. On one hand it’s constructive for the villagers towards a better life but on the other hand I was disappointed for tarnishing a rather perpetuated valley. This might also lead to uncontrolled development and gradual disappearance of the traditional, eco-friendly, Ladakhi way of life, which seems to have been preserved and nurtured beautifully over the past centuries. As the case may be, this will take a few more years since the work in on from 2010.

On the way to Zangla

We also come across the onliest fuel station on the way to Zangla. I was so elated to witness this analog functionality to work just fine.


A 500 year old nunnery by the name of Byangchub Choling is nestled on a small hill at the far end of Zangla.

View from Zangla Nunnery

The buildings are traditional mud-brick with some very old paintings and statues. Allied in most of Ladakh and Zanskar, the electricity works only in evenings and water is used from the streams that outflow close at hand. One can witness the simple and regulated life lead by nuns.

Zangla Nunnery, Zanskar

An old beautiful Nun with charismatic personality in Zangla Nunnery

They also use Solar Cooking gifted to them by a foreign NGO. On a second thought, isn’t this what the most of modern societies are also trying.

Solar cooking in Zangla

The chomo (lady lama) we met was very friendly and invited us for tea in their kitchen.

Zangla Nunnery Kitchen

I meet these cute little kids around the kitchen who showed us the whole place around. If only time permitted, I could spend days together with these Junior Chomos.

Junior Chomos in Nunnery

With the Junior Nuns in Zangla Nunnery

While wandering around the nunnery, an old lady grappled us and asked Masood for his sunglasses. We were taken aback at first, but later we learnt that it is crucial for them to wear sunglasses in this scorching sunlit and dust.

A nun with Shades in Zangla Nunnery

Nonetheless, it perfectly complemented her face and she flaunted off with the photoshoot. I feel sorry for Massod though!

A nun with Shades in Zangla

We also went at the backyard and spent some time in the old nunnery. A chomo in old nunnery lay open a dose of her life. She shared that she was summoned to be a chomo at the age of 7 and how her brother got married a German woman. She further explained that they stay in Germany in winters and spend summers in Zangla. The age of Lady Lamas in this nunnery ranges from 5 years to 90 years.

Zangla Nunnery Chomo


(NOTE: Lots of Media ahead)

About an hours drive from Nunnery comes the much awaited Zangla palace. An old donjon stationed on the hills, which is now in ruins, was once the royal residence. It is astutely planted on a central hill which overlooks the entire valley. The view from the top is simply spectacular.

Zangla Old Palace

The village of Zangla was under the rule of a king only erstwhile. This royal family still lives in the village.  I was fortunate to have a small chat with Nima Norboo Namgyal, the former king himself in the new palace. Yes, you read it right, THE KING! There he was, unwinding himself by soaking in the mild sunlight of his front lawn in new palace.  He flaunted his new dog Achiko (named behind the movie) gifted by his daughter from the USA.

With Zangla King and his dog Achiko

To get inside the old palace, one first need to go to new palace and take the keys from there. Whilst the king’s daughters get the keys, the voluble and courteous old man shares his Zanskar tales. He told us about his ventures in Himalayas, the Hungarian Scholar, Tibetan scripts and a lot more stories.

The three-storey wreck of a 17th-century royal palace sits on a crag surveying Zangla village and the valley looking north towards Hanamur.

Zangla Old Palace, Zanskar

Its a ten minutes hike on a rocky mountain to get to the castle. One of the prime reasons why King doesn’t comes here often is this climb and he has a severe knee pain.

Stairs to Old Palace of Zangla

As you enter the palace, you will find stockpile of mud and stones and nothing more. But, if you have curiosity for ancient abodes, you will find plentiful fiction and saga to spree on.

Small mud structures as you walk up the palace

When we took the keys, we expected a grand door opening. Instead we found this scanty little door to invade into the palace.

Door to old palace

We intrude the palace into a gaping hall and then climbed up on gummed up rocky stairs till we reached first floor.

Stairs to go to first floor

In 1823, a renowned Hungarian scholar named Alexander (Sándor) Csoma de Kőrös, took a room here while compiling the first ever English – Tibetan Dictionary. Few of the remains still lie here. I pause here for a moment to go back in time and frame how this Hungarian feller would have resided here.

Enterance to Alexander Csoma de Kőrös’s room

Hungarian Scholar’s Room

The palace is being redone by an NGO that is run by a group of Hungarians who are inspired by the scholar. They did a remarkable job by using the similar old techniques of construction to preserve the look of the palace.

Palace redesigned by Hungarian NGO

Prayer Room inside Zangla Old Palace

We then climbed the next floor on rickety, wooden ladders till we reached the top floor of the tower. We could not believe our own eyes of what we saw next.

Stairs to the terrace of Old Zangla palace, Zanskar

Suddenly, we were captivated by a miraculous panorama 360 degrees around. As though nature was woking on it’s finest art work and we sneak peaked into it. I was standing right in between of a dark muddy sketch of Himalayan pile with deep blue sky, line of streams passing by here and there, a small village far & wide and nothing else.

View from the terrace of Zangla Old Palace. Stack of mud so huge that the sky looks small.

View from Zangla Palace, Zanskar

Do not see this as a flat landscape. Imagine it as a giant 180 degree panorama and zoom into the details

Beautiful ruins are always an absolute masterpiece. I have tried to put up my walk in this palace in a video. Go ahead and see if this exotic piece ruins can inspire you to ride off to Zanskar.


After an off beat stopover at Old Zangla Palace, we proceed to see the Stongde Monastery. There were practically no roads except for a rocky pathway with tire tracks that seemed to lead up to the monastery.
Stationed atop a rocky cliff and about 18 kms from Padum, Stongdey Gompa is perched at an elevation of around 3500 metres. It was founded by Lama Marpa Lodos in the year of 1052.

Buddha Statue in Stongde Monastery, Zanskar

I expected Stongdey to be again just about another monastery. But it’s surprising how each Gompa I visit has something new to unfold every time.

A Lama opening the doors for us to Stongde Gompa

As we go towards the entrance of the monastery overpassing a tiled edge of the cliff, there was another breathtaking masterpiece canvas of nature. It was as though I sneaked into an artist’s half done painting. Before us was a vast meadow with the green terrain of Stongde village in the center. The snow-capped mountains formed a superb backdrop of semi-circular ring around the arena. Rest all was just left as a dusty brown palette with few muddy streams as thin outlines. Simply magnificent!

Panorama View from Stongdey Monastery, Zanskar

At the entrance, we met a couple of Lamas who graciously offered to show us around.

Lamas in Stong De Monastery, Zanskar

Even though we walked ahead towards the monastery, I almost couldn’t tear myself away from the incredible view I just saw. The monasteries are set in a cluster beyond this tiled stretch within traditional, Ladakhi, white-washed structures.

Stongde Gompa, Zanskar

There are several temples inside the complex. Gon Khang, also known as the temple of guardian deities, is one of the prominent temples located in the complex.

Temple in Stongde Monastery, Zanskar

Inside the temples were seated images of the Lord Buddha while the walls were decorated with lovely, worn Tangkha paintings and tassels.

Buddha Painting in Stongde Monastery, Zanskar

Wall Hangings – Thangka, Stongde Monastery, Zanskar

Stongde Monsatery Paintings

The most interesting and eye-catching were the colorful, wooden masks that monks wear during their sacred dance in festivals. It is said that the dancers wear this mask to protect the villagers from evil and the festival commences the victory of good over evil.

Holy Mask in Stongde Monastery

Mask – Stongdey Gompa, Zanskar

Holy Mask in Stongde Gompa


We march towards our next destination – Karsha Chamspaling Gompa. Alike all other monasteries, this largest and oldest monastery of Zanskar also sits at a hill top while Doda River flows besides the complex. Karsha Gompa comprises of eight temples and is currently under the control of the younger brother of the Dalai Lama.

Karsha Monastery, Zanskar

Karsha monsatery is only about 6kms NE of Padum, but one can see the glimpse of lamasery from half-way up the mountain-side. Passing the lanes of Karsha village we entered the monastery complex through an arched gateway. We got down at the last point of tar road to an open square from where the outlook was picture postcard perfect! Before us was a green oasis of Padum in the distance encompassed with towering mountains giving it a vivid and eloquent framework.

View from Karsha Monastery in July

I was acquainted with all of this. I checked in to Karsha Monastery during my Chadar Trek. It was more like a homecoming this time around. An absolute bliss!  I was gaping at lush green grassland now which was white wonderland only a few months back.

View from Karsha Monastery in January

Its a small ascend of around 15 minutes from the square upto the temples through the stairs and lanes of the Gompa.

On the way upto Karsha monastery

Once you reach up, there are a total of nine prayer halls and each one of has a very different touch to it. Unfortunately we only met one Lama there who explained that all other have gone to Sani Monastery festival.

Temple inside Karsha Monastery

A senior Lama in Karsha Monastery

Some of them being very old and a few under construction. The main temple was under renovation when went. There got to meet this chap behind all the soulful paintings. He learned this art from a school in Leh and to complete the walls of this Gompa will take him over an year.

A man painting on the walls of Karsha Monastery

Wall Painting in Karsha Monastery

Walking down the lanes of Karsha Monastery, you will come across a lot of small doors leaving in curiosity of the story behind each door. A man who past by us told that many lamas stay here for their study and meditation even today. I can only wonder – How?

Small doors on the way up to Karsha Monastery

I was already at the pinnacle of joy when I bumped into the same mischievous junior lama I met in January.

With Lamas in Karsha Monastery in January

With Lamas in Karsha Monastery in July

Once more, I leave this place with oodles of memories in hopes that I will rebound sometime soon. Coming to this far off earth twice in an year already feels like it has become my second home.

Sitting atop Karsha Monastery

I bid adieu to Karsha once again and leave for Padum. As I reached Mont Blanc, Yangdon gifted me a handmade pair of socks. I feat into the kitchen to help Palkit in preparing Spinach momos. Over dinner, we all ended up narrating how our day went by.

Cooking momos in Padum, Zanskar

Traveling solo to Zanskar gave me so many stories to share, yet left me speechless. I close my eyes and still feel my heart stirred at the beauty of not only awe inspiring trans Himalayan range but also ethnicity, culture, purity and innocence. A hidden gem of sorts.

Nights in Zanskar

I still don’t know if my wanderlust appetite was over loaded that day or it had just begun…