Guided Photo-Tour of Zanskar
featuring the trek over Rusila, The Incredible Karsha Mask Dance and a 4 day rafting expedition down the Zanskar river
July 6th to 19th
The Guided Photo & Film Tour of Zanskar is designed for visual people by visual people, period.
As image-makers, we understand your special needs. Whether it’s the cumbersome and heavy gear you need to bring along, (and might need carried for you) or the fact that you need to charge batteries 3 days away from civilization. You may even wish to set up a perfect shot with the village elder,and his son, but will need two strobe-flashes with soft boxes, and so on. Travelling Lens promises to deliver this and more to you in a once in a lifetime experience.
Our itineraries are designed for you, the conscientious traveler who believes in holistically experiencing a destination. Our mantra: Slowness, Safety and Comfort, will truly help you to relax, adjust to the mountain air, and to find energy that you never thought you had. On a trip with us, you will likely encounter several ‘tourists’ who are set on covering your itinerary in half the time. We just do not believe in that. We strongly believe that the mighty Himalayas and the high-altitude playground it offers; must be respected at all times. The body must be given ample time to acclimatize to the reduced oxygen in the air, and only on day three, will you truly find your feet.
The voyage into Zanskar will take you through the time machine into one of the most remote regions in India. You begin at Alchi, living a few meters from a thousand-year old Buddhist temple . As you turn off the Leh-Srinagar highway onto the road forgotten, you are transported into the very heart of the Greater Himalayan Range. Our 4-day trek, although challenging, carries with it the rewards of conquering the mighty Rusilla pass (5,486 m/18,000ft), and with it a jaw-dropping 360degree view from the top of the world. You will encounter time-weathered faces; people living joyfully in hamlets that are several days from the nearest road. You will make friends, learn about traditions, exchange smiles and occasionally be asked to play doctor to a passing stranger. You will step foot on the mighty Drangdrum Glacier, a breathtaking sight at sunset. You will touch the ice, feel the freezing waters, and gain a new found respect for the word ‘glacier,’ and the impact that civilization has had on them.
Kilometer after kilometer of vast nothingness gives you time to marvel at the magnitude of nature’s grand spectacle. The Zanskar river and its many tributaries cut through the earth, painting the mountains with the colors of time. At Rangdum (3,657 m /11,998 ft), the ‘tibetan plateau’ from your imagination, comes alive. Surrounded by snow-capped mountains you find yourself camping in the middle of absolutely nowhere. In the morning light, perched atop a lone hill, the impressive Rangdum monastery appears like a mirage that your mind has created. It is then, that you cross the stunning Panzilla pass (4,400 m /14,436 ft), nestled amongst peaks that seem close enough to touch.
Padum, a sleepy little town at the main crossroad in the valley, will be your base to explore Zanskar. Smiling faces, dusty merchants, barely working STD booths, and a smattering of shops and food-joints will bring you to the simple pleasures that mean so much. You will rejoice at having a bed, even more so at a bathroom with solid walls and running water; you will certainly cherish every drop of that bucket of hot water. You will thank us ever so much for bringing our own cooks, especially when you’re sitting outside the dining tent at sunset, enjoying beer and pakoras.
The Karsha Monastery Mask Dance known locally as the cham, will undoubtedly be the highlight of your trip. The smell of burning incense, the rhythm of the drums and resonating vibrations of the horns will overcome your senses. . Robed and masked monks of all ages will perform gravity defying acrobatics. You will sit there mesmerized by the riot of colour, tradition and entrancing movement.. The mind will float away into the dimension between myth and reality. You will explore even deeper into Zanskar, to the last bastion of civilization at the very end of the road. The ancient capital of Zangla will serve as your window into everyday living in this desolate place. If you are really lucky, the King of Zangla will invite you to his old palace, regale you with stories from the past. And when it’s just too much to take-in all at once, we will take you to a waterfall with a perfect natural pool to plunge-into and shock you back to your senses.
If you’re exhausted just reading this, don’t worry, this is precisely why our itinerary is spread over 17 days . You will have a chance to savor every experience, big or small, for all it is worth. For those seventeen beautiful days, the rhythm of the road, the sound of the gushing river, and the snow-capped peaks teasing you by peeking out from behind hills will become your way of life. You will be refreshed and energized and will discover a tranquility that your alter-ego, whom you left behind in the city never knew existed.
Let’s face it, if you get a whole bunch of image-makers, visual-people, rock-stars, artists, finance-honchos, industrialists, ad-geeks and overall interesting people together, in a location such as this, it will undoubtedly be the most fun thing you have done. Our Zanskar trip has so much to offer.
You owe it to yourself. Live a little. Come to the Himalayas with Travelling Lens.
6th to 23rd July 2012
July 06 | Day 01 | Meet in Leh at 9am – Drive to Alchi at leisure. Overnight at GUEST HOUSE. All meals.
July 07 | Day 02 | Drive to Sapi village. Camp next to lovely stream. CAMPING. All meals.
July 08 | Day 03 | Short day hikes to acclimatize, explore nearby monasteries and village. CAMPING. All meals.
July 09 | Day 04 | Trek starts – camp below Rusilla. CAMPING. All meals.
July 10 | Day 05 | Trek over Rusilla and camp on other side. CAMPING. All meals.
July 11 | Day 06 | Trek further down to stay at Bartoo village. CAMPING. All meals.
July 12 | Day 07 | Walk to Tikit/road head and drive to Rangdum. FIXED CAMP/CAMPING. All meals.
July 13 | Day 08 | Drive to Padum. GUEST HOUSE. All meals.
July 14 | Day 09 | Drive to Karsha to see Mask Dance Festival. GUEST HOUSE. All meals.
July 15 | Day 10 | Either return to the mask dance or Drive to explore Padum, visit a nearby waterfall and Zangla Village. Camp at Zangla. All meals.
July 16 | Day 11 | Rafting expedition begins. RAFT to Nyekar. Riverside CAMPING. All meals.
July 17 | Day 12 | Raft to Chiling. River-side CAMPING. All meals.
July 18 | Day 13 | Raft to Nimoo. Lunch at the confluence of the Indus and Zanskar rivers. Drive to Leh. Overnight at guesthouse in Leh. All meals.
July 19 | Day 14 | Tour ends. Participants may choose to fly out, drive out or continue to explore the mountains.
ALCHI AND MULBEK
We meet you in Leh after you take one of the world’s most scenic flights, leaving the moisture of the Gangetic Plain to cross the Great Himalayan Range into its rain shadow, the arid region of Ladakh. Try to check in early to snag a window seat on the left (the view from the right is equally rewarding) so you will have the sun behind you as you are rendered speechless by the awesome grandeur of the endless ranges that make up the earth’s highest mountain range. Upon arrival you will be whisked away for a quick breakfast, before heading out towards Alchi. The scenic drive along the mystical Indus River takes us along many vistas and oddities, such as magnetic hill where cars roll uphill when switched off. We will cross the darker and swifter Zanskar river at Nimmu where it emerges from its valley to join the mighty Indus. We also drive past the monasteries of Bazgo and Spituk whose architecture is entirely harmonious with its mountainous surrounding.
After crossing the Indus near Saspol we arrive at Alchi. It is strongly recommend that you take it easy on your first day at this high altitude. Short walks are a great way to let your body get used to the reduced oxygen, but do not overdo it and hydrate adequately. Explore the market and the town, maybe venture down to the banks of the Indus. Spend your first two days relaxing and forgetting about the city life you left behind. Visit the many shrines of the thousand year old Alchi temple, and experience the stunning one of a kind murals painted by Kashmiri artists. Be sure to look for the walking staff of “The Great Translator” Lama Zangpo Rinpoche, who, legend has it found a tree growing from his walking staff, and so built the temple that makes Alchi famous. The temple escaped destruction at the hands of invading Islamic armies owing to its location amidst the barren gorges of the Indus and desolate mountains that surround it.
Having acclimatized for two nights in Alchi we venture following the Indus North West to Mulbek. Standing tall alongside the highway is the Mulbek Chamba, a 9m relief sculpture of the Maithreya Buddha (Buddha of the Future) carved into a massive rock, said to have been carved as long ago as the 8th century. The Mulbek Chamba is said to unofficially symbolize the point on the Leh-Srinagar highway where Buddhism ends and Islam begins. Perched high above the village atop a massive monolithic rock mountain, are the ruins of the old monastery, and the new monastery that has replaced it. Cling to the rockface as you round the monastery corner while the wind pounds you to get a spectacular view of the valley below.
APPROACHING THE SURU VALLEY – THE TREK
We leave the Leh-Srinagar highway and cross the Indus once more. The first sign that we are going off-the beaten track and further back in time, is the somewhat bizzare monastery at Shergol, which appears to be one with the rock face it is embedded into, distinguishable only because of its stunning white and red-ochre walls. We continue onto a recently built road that takes us over the Sapi La pass down to the lush meadow and sparkling stream of Sapi. Here is where the road ends, and we will meet our camp crew who will accompany us the rest of the way, as well as the horses and donkeys that we will befriend and rely on to carry our stuff. You will fall in love with the campsite that is set along the meadow banks of a gurgling brook, whose water sparkles with a lure greater than any diamond. Dip your feet in and wade a little, enjoy yourself while keeping an eye on the hills and mountains ahead of you that you will be crossing on foot in the coming days.
Our approach into the Suru Valley begins by crossing the stream and heading into the hills. The climb is fairly gradual, giving you time to find your rhythm. A tip to smokers: a morning cigarette and climbing uphill don’t go too well together. There are some stunning views as we climb higher and higher, and see our campsite shrink and disappear as we round the mountain. The last stretch of uphill climb though slightly steeper – is good preparation for the Rusila. It leads to a minor pass that offers stunning views of the valley we are leaving behind, and the rugged but beautiful mountainous terrain we are yet to overcome. After lunch, we begin our descent to our campsite – a cosy and protected plateau (approx 4100m).
We leave the campsite early to begin the onslaught, trudging up the mountainside until we reach its shoulder. Walking along the ridge, we are entreated yet again to spectacular views of snow covered peaks. One feels truly atop the world as we walk along the gradual undulations of the ridge from one hump to the next climbing ever higher, and ever closer to the mountain tops. As we approach the Rusilla, the task at hand becomes abundantly clear as we are faced with a mountainous wall that must be surmounted. Slowly and surely we will climb till we reach the top and are dumbstruck by the majesty of what we see. At 18,500, we stand perched with the Karakoram Range forming the horizon behind us, and the giant massifs of the Suru-Zanskar Range dominating the vista ahead. Pause to take it all in, and cherish the feeling of having accomplished such an unforgettable feat. After lunch at the pass we begin the descent down to the campsite – a small table-top formation above a stream.
As we head out the next day on a much shorter and gentler hike, we re-enter civilization as we walk downhill through small hamlets that are equally isolated as the Rusila. Villagers, old and young are not very accustomed to seeing travellers in these parts, and will often follow you with innocent and curious smiles. We walk past grazing goats towards our destination – a small hamlet just outside Bartoo. The greenery of the grove we camp in is the first sign that we are approaching the Suru Valley. The short walk helps ease the exertion from the day before, and leaves ample time to visit the hamlet, and wander through its narrow lanes that lead past its mosque to a gushing stream. Marvel at the community that pooled together their resources to invest in a micro-hydel plant that provides electricity to their twelve or so houses at night despite living a days walk away from the motorable road. You are the main entertainment for the villagers, who are still getting used to seeing travellers, and will love to see pictures and learn about where you are from. At night we will have a bonfire at dinner, and perhaps if we sing well enough, the locals might sing along as they wash their dishes.
On our last trekking day we descend further and further into civilization. The barren landscapes we were so used to are replaced by lush greenery as we get closer to joining the Suru valley. We walk past fields of barley, wheat and vegetables, and through villages with mosques whose metal domes gleam in the sun. As the towns get larger we hit the motorable road, where our cars await us. We bid farewell to our horses, and donkeys, and thank their handlers for the stories they shared with us, and proceed onward by car to Sankoo where the valley we are in merges connects with the greater Suru valley. We continue on to Rangdum.
THE SURU VALLEY : THE GATEWAY TO ZANSKAR
The Suru Valley is one of the most beautiful regions of Ladakh. Nestled along the northern foothills of the Great Himalayan wall, it extends from Kargil town, first southward for about 75km to the expansive grounds Panikhar where a wetland forms the perfect terrestrial companion to the sky-bound massifs of Nun and Kun. The lush valley then snakes eastwards for about 65km to the base of Penzila pass ( 4401m), where the Suru river rises. With its considerable tract of alluvial floor and terraced hill slopes , these alluvial deposits make the lower Suru Valley where we end our trek a very productive part of Ladakh. The drive to Rangdum, especially around Sankoo and Panikhar are spectacular as you see snow capped peaks, alpine slopes drained by wild mountain streams, glaciers, quaint villages straddling dry hillocks which are generally surrounded by cultivated fields.
Rangdum is the farthest and most isolated part of the valley. Set on a vast windswept flatland surrounded by colorful hills on one side and glacier encrusted on the other, it appears as a figment of your imagination. We arrive in the evening, to a hot meal and a night of relaxation and celebration after our mammoth trek. As you head back to your tent for the night, be sure take a moment to gaze at the stars and see how many satellites and shooting stars you can count.
The morning reveals Rangdum’s true masterpiece. Floating above the empty plateau atop a high hillock, crowned by the mountains that surround it, is the 18th century monastery that makes you forget which era you live in. We will visit the monastery before continuing onwards into Zanskar.
CROSSING THE PENZILA INTO ZANSKAR
The drive leads us along the Suru River to its glacial source at the eastern side of the Penzila. We cross this pass and are immediately confronted by the massive peaks that loom on the other side. As the road winds ahead, we are awestruck by the scale of the colossal Drang-Drum glacier that towers alongside the road that is shockingly close to its base. Niether words nor images can do this location justice, as they simply cannot adequately describe how tiny we are when placed alongside this behemoth of ice and rock. The glacier gives rise to the River Stod – a major tributary of the Zanskar – which we will follow all the way to Padum, stopping along its silt laden banks for lunch.
Zanskar, the most isolated of the Trans-Himalayan Valleys is spread over 5000sq km of rugged mountainous terrain. It is contained by very high rising mountains and very deep gorges. The dramatic and colorful rock formations and erosion patterns are a spectacular vision akin to abstract and impressionist art. Due to its isolation, the ancient lifestyle and culture have been well preserved as you will see when you visit the villages and meet with its people.
The road follows the tributary to its confluence with the Zanskar. Here, in a vast open space where valleys merge like water lies the heart of Zanskar. Close to the confluence is Padum, the largest town in the area. Visible across the basin is the town of Karsha and its looming monastery.
Padum will serve as our basecamp for the next few days as we explore all Zanskar has to offer. Set at the most important crossroad in the valley, Padum is a highly entertaining town with its quaint shops, cyber cafes with barely functioning internet, odd characters, and of-course, a wonderful locally flavored bar. The best thing that Padum has to offer is apart from a room with a bed, is a hot bath. After washing the dust you brought with you from Rusila out of your hair, come by the dining tent to have some hot pakoras and cold beer.
The next day we head to the Karsha Monastery Festival, an occasion that brings inhabitants from all parts of the valley together. A market is set up in the town of Karsha, giving locals the opportunity to purchase items like toys, gloves, and other knick-knacks. Above all, it is a religious ritual, where monks of the monastery perform the Cham or Mask Dance. A large audience of Zanskar locals, monks from Karsha and other monasteries, local dignitaries, lots of children, and travellers, gather in the main courtyard of the monastery for the ritual. We take our place among them after having visited the inner shrines of the monastery that hold exquisite statues, tanghkas, and painted murals – open to the public only during the festival. The Mask Dance – set to a pulsating drum beat inter spaced with clashing cymbals – is a riot of color and movement. Masks of animals, demons, and protective spirits are danced by acrobatic monks who will captivate you with their energy.
The following day gives us the option of revisiting the Karsha festival – where the proceedings are not very different from the previous days, or alternatively heading to the ancient capital of Zangla which is the end of the actual road. Here, above the sleepy hamlet lies the ancient fort – which is now in much ruin. Exploring the fort leads to the Royal Prayer Shrine, still in use, with some exquisite and old statues. If we are lucky, we may run into the King of Zangla and be invited for a cup of tea in his palace, to be enchanted with stories from Zanskar’s past. On our way back to Padum, we stop at a beautiful waterfall with a stunning natural pool that just begs to be jumped into.
This itinerary is spread across a leisurely and comfortable 14 days, where you will have enough time to acclimatize and relax without feeling the pressure, stress and fatigue of travelling.
Frequently Asked Questions
Q: Do I need to be a photographer or into photography to come on this tour?
A: No. The Zanskar tour is open to anyone. Of course we really recommend you a bring a good camera along; you are sure to be inspired by all the photographers travelling with you. If you are not into photography, please come prepared to at least travel at a relaxed pace and stop frequently at viewpoints and photo opportunities.
Q: We are going to some very high altitudes, can their be problems with breathing and headaches?
A: Yes. The trick to negotiating high altitudes is to spend some time doing absolutely nothing when you first arrive. One of the key features of the trip is the completely relaxed scheduled that allows you to do exactly that. We have scheduled 2 days in Leh where all you will do is take walks around the town, explore a monastery and stroll around. Even after we leave Leh we have 2 days before we make any significant ascent in altitude; so that you can slowly find your feet in the rarefied air. This is not to say that someone may experience some symptoms like headaches; however there is no need to be alarmed.
Q: What is the weather like there?
A: We are all aware that weather in the mountains is very unpredictable, so of course no one can say for sure. However, on average, Ladakh has a variety in its daily conditions. During the day, one is likely to experience scorching heat when exposed to sunlight and much cooler temperatures in the shade. In the evenings and at night it can get as low as 2-3 degrees Celsius or even lower in some places.
Q: What about Loos!!!???
A: This is the one discomfort that you might have to live with. On the Zanskar tour more often than not we will be camping at sites of our choosing. Our staff will always pitch toilet tents that can be sealed for privacy and protection from the wind. However, there is no guarantee of what we find on the road when nature does make that untimely call. To battle this in a dignified manner we recommend a recently learned travellers secret – the use of ‘baby wet wipes’ is both pleasant and hygienic.
Q: What about my precious Cellphone coverage???
A: Even though we would much rather you leave those blasted contraptions behind at home, we realise that some of you might need to be in touch with the real world from time to time. Despite the lovely cellular company ads showing people in the middle of Ladakh with crystal clear coverage the truth is quite different. Most networks just drop out a few hours outside Manali and don’t pick up till Leh. Even in Leh you are likely to encounter trouble. The trick here is to ensure that you have either a Airtel or BSNL connection, which is properly activated for roaming. BSNL will give you coverage even outside of the Leh area. In Zanskar, Airtel and BSNL are the best bets. BSNL has wider coverage in the area.
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30days to 15 days: 50% of package cost
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1 night: INR 12,500 per person
2 night: INR 15,000 per person
These package prices include an extra night in Leh on your return from Pangong Lake
Swiss style deluxe tents with attached bathrooms, on the banks of the lake
Located at a whopping 14,720 feet (4845m) above sea level, the majestic Pangong Tso is a vast salt water body that is nestled in the bosom of the Himalayas. Many hours can be spent gazing upon its crystal clear waters, which seem to be ever changing in hues. Various shades of blue, green, and even purple, seem to dance about as if in a perfectly choreographed ballet. The lake is gigantic, with one-third in India, and the remainder in Tibet.
Pangong is also a haven for Himalayan birds. Spend the afternoon on the banks of the lake and you are sure to catch several different species.
Karzok Gustor, Tso Moriri
2 nights: INR 16,000 per person
3 nights: INR 20,500 per person
These package prices include an extra night in Leh on your return from Tso Moriri
Swiss style deluxe tents, on the banks of the lake
The Korzok Gu-stor festival is an ancient Budhist ritual held in a monastary on the banks of Tso-Moriri. Nomadic herdsmen and villagers come from far and wide to witness to witness the Black hat cham dances, a sybolic re-creation of a mythical tale of good versus evil.
1 night: INR 12,000 per person
2 night: INR 15,500 per person
These package prices include an extra night in Leh on your return from Nubra Valley
Swiss style deluxe tents with attached bathrooms, located in an organic garden
Nubra Valley is a large, flat and wide region located about 150 Km. north of Leh. Located right in the middle of the Ladakh and Karakoram mountain ranges, the valley is home to the Shyok River – one of the largest draining the Karakoram, and a major tributary to the Indus. Local historians believe that the valley’s original name was Ldumra – the valley of flowers,
1 night: INR 5,000 per person
4 night: INR 26,500 per person
These package prices include an extra night in Leh on your return from Stok
Family run homestay guesthouses | Dome tents on expedition days