India: Zanskar Traverse

Mar 1, 2001
Outside Magazine

Green peace: lush valleys near the Lamayuru Monastery, Ladakh, India

Trek Length: 17–23 days, 175 miles
Maximum Altitude: 16,695 feet
Physical Challenge: 1 2 3 4 5
Price (Self-organized Trek): $500–$1,000
Price (Group Trek): $1,000–$3,445
Prime Time:July–August
Staging Cities: New Delhi
Travel Alert: Be aware of recurring Hindu-Muslim border skirmishes, some 75 miles and several mountain passes to the north. But because Zanskar is primarily Buddhist, the Kashmir conflict has had little direct impact on trekkers.

The Rhapsody: For centuries Zanskar, a little-known pocket of the Indian Himalayas, has resisted definition—straddling governments and cultures like its own miniature kingdom. Though part of India's northern state of Jammu and Kashmir since 1949, Zanskar's inhabitants— overwhelmingly Buddhist—have more in common with their northern neighbors than with the throngs in New Delhi, some 400 miles south. But more than anything, it's Zanskar's dramatic geography that has earned it the nickname "Little Tibet": two isolated river valleys in the region of Ladakh ringed by jagged, 19,000-foot peaks and linked by an ancient network of trekking routes more remote than those in the Karakoram and far less traveled than those of Everest. Though much of the 175-mile Zanskar traverse keeps to the valleys, this is high, arid country. You'll spend three solid weeks above 11,000 feet and cross nine 12,500-foot-plus passes. There are few villages and even fewer paved roads, limited opportunities for resupplying food and fuel, and often indistinct trail markers. But the payoffs only get better: namely, 1,000-year-old Buddhist monasteries carved into limestone cliffs, teahouses run by Ladakhi apricot farmers, and fast-running glacial rivers (always cross in the early morning, before midday snowmelt swells them into impassable torrents).
The Route: After a day or two of acclimatization in the former hippie hangout (and current Indian honeymoon haven) of Manali, trekkers make the full day's bus ride to Darcha, a small village at the start of the south-north route. The first seven- to 11-day leg crosses Shingo La, a snowy 16,695-foot pass, and then follows the Tsarap River into Padam, once Zanskar's trading hub for turquoise, gold, and silver—passing Karsha Monastery, 1,000 years old and still the most active in the region, and Phuktal Monastery. The ten- to 12-day second stage continues over 16,880-foot Shingi La to Lamayuru Monastery. From there you'll drive to the Ladakhi capital of Leh and fly or drive back to Delhi.

Guides and Outfitters: Because the trails are unmarked and can be confusing at times, all but the most experienced route-finders will want to hire a guide. Horses and handlers can be retained as porters in Manali or Padam for $5 to $10 per horse per day. Local outfitters in Manali charge $1,000 to $1,500 for a full-service Zanskar trek; check in with the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute in Manali for recommendations. New Delhi outfitters also offer several treks in the Ladakh region; contact Indian Tribal Tours (011-91-11-3723353; for more information and detailed itineraries. Geographic Expeditions and Himalayan High Treks are the only full-service U.S. outfitters that run the Zanskar trek described here, at a cost of $3,100­$3,445 per person.

Read Up: Trekking in Ladakh, by Charlie Loram ($17, Trailblazer Publications) is the most detailed guide to trekking in the region. Andrew Harvey's A Journey in Ladakh ($15, Houghton Mifflin) is his memoir of spiritual adventures in northern India. Trekking in the Indian Himalaya ($18, Lonely Planet) includes a section on Zanskar routes. —D.N.

Filed To: India, Snow Sports

More at Outside

Elsewhere on the Web

Not Now

Got Wanderlust?

Escape your daily grind with Outside’s best getaways.

Thank you!