Much of far North India is quite mystical and remote, with crumbling hilltop monasteries, high altitude otherworldly landscapes and winding mountain roads leading to far-flung places. However, Ladakh is now a well-travelled circuit with many visitors taking the long journey up to this secluded and stunning part of the Greater Himalayan region. For those looking for a more remote experience that takes plenty of patience and an appetite for long drives, Zanskar Valley remains one of the last frontiers for true adventure in India.
The high altitude Zanskar Valley sits in the lower Ladakh region amongst breathtakingly rugged mountains. While on a map it doesn’t appear too far away from the town of Leh to the north, the journey to reach Zanskar Valley is not for the faint hearted. The long trip is only taken by very few travellers each year meaning that there is little practical information available. So, I’ve put together this detailed guide to Zanskar Valley so that those hoping to reach this remote valley can plan their trip.
I spent almost a week exploring Zanskar Valley and it’s one of the most memorable experiences of my time on the Indian subcontinent. Keep reading to find out why!
About Zanskar Valley
Zanskar Valley is separated from Ladakh by the rugged Zanskar Range in North India. Part of the Greater Himalayan region, it’s a high altitude, snow-capped area of towering peaks and deep ravines.
The valley was historically part of the Zanskar Kingdom with inhabitants mostly of Tibetan descent and following Tibetan Buddhism. However, there are also Balti people who have lived in the valley since the 17th century, who follow Islam. You can find old monasteries dotting the hilltops, as well as mosques in the main towns.
The main town and administrative centre in Zanskar Valley is Padum. This small town is located at the intersection of two major valleys, with the Zanskar River passing through and heading north. For many years, Padum has sat at the end of the only road that enters the valley. However, major construction has began on roads connecting Padum to the Leh-Manali Road at Darcha to the east and to Leh in the north. These projects will potentially take a few years yet.
Read next: 18 Best Things to Do in Ladakh
When is the best time to visit Zanskar Valley?
Zanskar Valley is only currently accessible by one motorable road. This road comes from Kargil to the northwest of Padum and is a rough and remote road that cuts through the valley over high mountain passes. As with much of Ladakh, the area sees harsh winters and heavy snowfall that keeps roads blocked for many months.
The roads in this region are generally only open from June until October each year, depending on the weather conditions experienced in any given winter. This means that outside of the summer months, the only option is to either charter a helicopter (!) or make the epic winter trek known as the Chadar Trek which has hikers walking on the frozen Zanskar River from Leh to Padum.
During the warm summer months, the days are generally nice with clear skies and snow limited to the mountain peaks. However, it’s certainly not as warm as other parts of India and you should still pack warm clothing for after dark.
How to get to Zanskar Valley
Zanskar Valley is basically only accessible by road and only for half of the year over summer. The main road to Padum in Zanskar begins in Kargil, a major town on the Srinagar-Leh Road in Ladakh. This means that to reach Zanskar Valley you need to get yourself to Kargil. Most people travel from Leh to Kargil and then onto Padum, but you could also travel from Srinagar to Kargil and then onto Padum depending on your plans.
There is a bus that runs from Leh to Padum once a week on Monday. The journey takes two days, with an overnight stop in Kargil where you must find your own accommodation for the night. The bus is run by the State Road and Transport Corporation and leaves from the main bus station in Leh at 5am. The journey costs 880 INR (US$12) at the time of writing.
You can book tickets the day before at the Leh bus station to ensure you get a good seat for the two days.
Leh to Kargil bus
The trip from Leh to Kargil takes around 8 hours on a relatively well-maintained and mostly sealed road. The bus drops passengers in town and told to return at the same spot at 4am (yes, 4am!). There are a few hotels in Kargil to cater for travellers.
I stayed at Hotel Rangyul, which was 50m from where the bus dropped us. I negotiated a private room for 700 INR (US$10), they also serve food which is convenient for dinner.
Kargil to Padum bus
The next morning the bus leaves at 4am from the same spot in Kargil. From there, the road to Padum begins. After around 2 hours, there is a police checkpoint where foreigners must have their passports checked and registered. From there onwards, the sealed road ends and the rough, dirt road begins.
There is a small tea shop that serves as a morning stop and then lunch is at Rangdum where there is a restaurant serving basic food.
The journey from Kargil to Padum takes around 15 hours on a rough and bumpy road.
There are a few checkpoints along the way, where foreigners are required to get off the bus and show your passport to the officer who signs a register. There is no permit needed, just your passport.
Alternative transport options
If the idea of an old bus trundling along a dirt road sounds horrifying, then you can also opt for private transport and shared jeeps. Private transport from Kargil to Padum in Zanskar will cost around 14,000 INR (US$200) for the whole vehicle (8-10 people). Alternatively, you can share a jeep with other people and pay around 1500 INR per person (US$20). You can ask about these options at the bus station in Kargil.
If you’re travelling from Srinagar, buses to Kargil leave around 7am each day. The fare is around 300 INR (US$4) per person for the normal bus and takes around 8-10 hours (there are deluxe buses at a higher price). You need to book a ticket in advance at the Srinagar Bus Station if possible, as they can sell out.
Then from Kargil, you will need to organise a ticket to Padum. The buses from Kargil to Padum are infrequent and only run every couple of days. You need to ask at the Kargil bus station for the next departure. Otherwise, you could try to time it with the Leh to Padum bus and get on at Kargil, if there is a seat available.
About Padum in Zanskar Valley
Padum is a small, dusty town in the middle of soaring mountains. It’s a nondescript town with basic amenities for travellers including a few restaurants, snack shops, tour agencies and guesthouses.
There’s no phone signal or internet in town. The only connection to the outside world is at two Internet cafes in town (yes, they still exist in this part of the world). You can connect to Wi-Fi for 5 INR per minute, but be aware that it’s painfully slow and almost pointless at times.
There is no designated bus station or taxi stand as the town is simply not big enough to warrant one. The bus drops passengers in town at the main intersection which is where you’ll find most transport congregates.
Where to stay in Padum
There are a few guesthouses scattered around Padum town. It pays to walk around town and see your options before settling on one for the night. Popular options include:
IBEX Hotel | This is located right in the main intersection in town and is usually the first place travellers see when getting off the bus in town. It has very basic rooms, but so do most places in town.
Hotel Rigyal | Just up the road opposite the IBEX Hotel, this is a popular choice for travellers with basic but large and spacious rooms.
Things to do in Zanskar Valley
There are some incredible things to do in Zanskar Valley. From crumbling ancient monasteries to treks into remote villages, there are some great adventures to be had. Here are some of the must-do things in Zanskar.
Karsha Monastery is the largest in the Zanskar region. It’s just 10km from Padum and built into the side of the mountain overlooking the valley. Founded in the 11th century, it’s estimated that around 100 monks now reside in the monastery.
It is under control of the younger brother of the Dalai Lama and houses relics brought in from Lhasa in the 1960s. Visitors are welcome to explore the monastery, and a monk will most likely show you to some of the temples and prayer rooms.
Just 6km before you reach Padum is the village of Sani. It’s home to one of the oldest Tibetan Buddhist monasteries in the Ladakh and Zanskar region. It’s believed to date back to around the 1st century, being constructed by Karnishka, the famous Kushan Emperor.
Sani Monastery is one of the holiest places in the Himalayan region and holds very special relics. It’s believed that Padmasambava, also called Guru Rinpoche, is said to have lived in Sani in the 8th century.
Visitors are welcomed in the monastery and is worth a stop before reaching Padum.
Just 18km north of Padum is the Stongdey monastery, the second largest and oldest in Zanskar Valley. Perched on top of a hill overlooking the valley, it has an incredible vantage point. It’s a steep drive up the winding road to reach it, but it’s certainly worth a visit.
You can wander the monastery and meet the monks, as long as you don’t interrupt any prayers. The resident monks were very friendly when I visited and invited me to stay for lunch with them. The view from the monastery is probably one of the best you’ll see anywhere in Ladakh.
Further up the valley north of Padum, Zangla is home to a nunnery and 17th century palace ruins. The nuns are very friendly and I sat to have chai with them when I visited. It’s then a steep walk on a well-made track up to the palace ruins.
While you can’t enter into the palace itself, you can roam across the hilltop around the ruins. The position offers an incredible panoramic view of the valley.
The road construction is ongoing in this part of the valley but the road from Padum to Zangla is relatively good, although not completely sealed yet.
A trip from Padum to Stongdey and Zangla in a private taxi will cost round 2000 INR (US$28) for the day.
A relatively new monastery for the standards of the Zanskar region, Bardan is believed to date back to the 17th century. It’s located just 12 kilometres from Padum, on the way to Ichar and Cha village on the Phuktal Monastery trek. You can drive to the monastery on a dirt road.
The monastery occupies a nice spot on a small hill in the valley and is quite a picturesque spot. It’s less visited than some of the other monasteries mentioned here and is worth a stop. The monks were quite friendly when I visited one morning.
The crown jewel of Zanskar Valley, Phuktal Monastery is one of the most incredible sights that I’ve ever seen. It’s an ancient monastery complex that is built inside an old meditation cave high up in the rugged mountains of the valley. It’s one of the last remaining monasteries in the entire North India region that is still only accessible on foot.
The trek to Phuktal Monastery is a great adventure and the best thing to do in Zanskar Valley. However, road construction is changing this quite rapidly. The original trek began in Ichar east of Padum, although the motorable road has now been built all the way to Cha village. However, I still began in Ichar and then followed the dirt road all the way to Cha. This is about 20km and took about 5 hours.
There are a few homestays in Cha village. As soon as you arrive, someone will approach you and offer you a place to stay. Otherwise, simply ask someone and they will find somewhere for you to stay.
The trail from there heads north and stays on the left side of the valley. It’s a skinny goat track used by the monks and donkey trains delivering supplies. You will see the motorable road that has been built on the other side of the valley.
The trek from Cha to Phuktal takes around 2 hours.
There is a monastery guesthouse below that is open to visitors to stay the night. They offer basic beds and dinner and breakfast. You can then explore the monastery at your leisure and meet the young monks. The guesthouse charges around 1000 INR (US$14) for a bed and meals per person.
There are shared cars leaving early in the morning from Cha back to Padum. However, you can also try to share a private vehicle pickup with other trekkers.
The infamous Chadar Trek is a winter expedition over the frozen Zanskar River. It’s one of the only ways of accessing Padum in the winter months and connects Leh with Padum through the remote valley.
The 60km trek takes around 5 days to complete and must be done with a trekking team and company. Temperatures are well below zero and conditions are extremely harsh. Any travel and trekking agencies in Leh can help arrange a Chadar Trek adventure.
It’s usually completed during January and February, with only a few departures each year. It’s widely considered a serious challenge and should only be done by those who are well acclimatised and fit.
Essential travel information for Zanskar Valley
- Don’t expect to have any phone reception or Wi-Fi connection for your time in Zanskar Valley. Make sure that you have told someone of your trip intentions so that they know where you are.
- There are only basic restaurants in Padum serving momos, fried rice, thukpa soup and rice and dahl. Don’t expect a large array of options, but the food is still good and the staff are happy to help foreigners.
- Bring enough cash for your entire trip. There is only one ATM in Padum town, but it is not always working and does not always have cash.
- Carry a power bank with you for those long bus journeys and times without access to power.
- Instead of buying plastic bottled water, you should carry a LifeStraw bottle so you can simply drink water straight from the tap without getting sick or adding to the world’s plastic waste problem.
- You’ll need a good daypack for the trips out to Zangla and the trek to Phuktal Monastery.
- Be respectful when visiting the monasteries. Don’t disturb monks in prayer and remain quiet during your visit. Always ask before taking photos of monks and nuns.
Leaving Padum and returning to Leh
When it comes to leaving Padum behind and heading back to Kargil and Leh, you will find very limited options. The bus that arrives from Leh via Kargil, turns around and makes the journey back again once a week. The departure day depends largely on the number of tickets sold (usually on Friday or Saturday), so you may need to be very patient when it comes to the return journey.
The journey on the return is the same, with a night spent in Kargil.
An alternative is to hire a private jeep and if you are in a group, this can work out relatively affordable. There are often a couple of driver’s around the centre of Padum or you can also ask one of the tour offices in town to organise one for you.