In continuation with the previous article, this article is a more detailed explanation of the route to Zanskar Valley from Srinagar Leh highway. The first and foremost thing that you really need to keep in mind here is that Zanskar is one of the remotest areas of Ladakh. Padum is the headquarters of Zanskar valley and is at a distance of approximately 250 kms from Kargil. Add to that the fact that the roads for most part of the journey will be in a bad state resulting in a slow progress. Even with an SUV, this 250 kms long journey of Kargil to Padum can take anywhere between 8 to 10 hours, depending on the amount of breaks you take. If the intent is to reach Padum with sun still in the sky, an early start from Kargil is advised, and by early I mean by first light of the day.
This road is open only for about 5 months in a year, from June to October. In winters the only way in and out of Zanskar is a hazardous walk along the frozen Zanskar River to the town of Nimmu.
Route of the journey will be as below.
- Kargil to Sankoo: 42 Kms
- Sankoo to Panikhar: 25 Kms
- Panikhar to Parkachik: 31 Kms
- Parkachik to Rangdum: 32 Kms
- Rangdum to Pensi La: 25 Kms
- Pensi La to Tungri: 73 Kms
- Tungri to Padum: 42 Kms
Below is a map of the route from Kargil to Zanskar valley. Please click on the map to view it in full size.
Travel time from Kargil to Padum: A round trip from Kargil to Padum will anywhere be between 500 to 600 kilometers. There is a petrol pump in Padum but whether or not it will be operational when you are there is a big question so do not rely on it. Please pay close attention to your vehicle’s mileage and carry spare fuel if required. There are only a few small towns on the way and quite a distance apart so ensure that you are carrying a puncture repair kit and some basic tools for your vehicle. For most part of the journey you will in middle of nowhere where even a flat tire can turn into a catastrophe if you do not have a repair kit.
Kargil to Sankoo: Please ensure that you start early from your hotel so that you have ample time to enjoy the beautiful vistas and still reach your destination well in time. Soon after Kargil, you will enter the beautiful Suru Valley which is really a sight for sore eyes. Suru river runs right through this valley and keeps it surprisingly green and fertile even at an altitude of above 3000 meters. People here are mostly Shia Muslims. Roads are mostly good until Panikhar with a few bad patches in between. You will continue traveling right next to the Suru river and soon will reach the small town of Sankoo, some 40 odd kilometers from Kargil. If you haven’t already eaten at Kargil, you can have your breakfast here.
Sankoo to Panikhar: A few kilometers after Sankoo, you will cross the Suru River over to its right side and if the weather is clear, you will also get your first glimpse of Nun and Kun peaks. Vistas too will improve tremendously and you will be greeted with greenery all around, midst the mighty snow capped mountains. It is one of the most scenic places in all of Suru and Zanskar valleys. A few kilometers before Panikhar, near Purkitche, the road will be running right along the banks of Suru while Nun and Kun peaks towering in the background, presenting a breathtaking view. Together, these two beautifuly mysterious mountains are one of the biggest attractions of Suru valley. Nun is forever covered in snow, a white peak whereas its next door neighbor, Kun is barren black. These two mountains are right next to each other, a perfect beautiful combination of black & white that never changes.
Panikhar to Parkachik: The moment you exit Panikhar, road conditions will turn from good to bad and eventually to ugly. From here until Padum, it will be just an unmetalled dirt road all the way. Road will turn towards Western side of Nun Kun Massif and will continue east towards fort of Rangdum. 40 kilometers from Panikhar is the small town of Parkachik, another very scenic spot in Suru valley. Parkachik La is another tourist attraction in the village of Parkachik but you can only trek to the pass.
Parkachik to Rangdum: From Parkachik you will continue your journey to Rangdum. A couple of kilometers after the village, you will get views of Parkachik glacier, another tourist attraction in Suru valley. From here, you will exit the fertile lower Suru valley and enter the upper suru valley which is a high altitude desert with its own absolute beauty. The valley here is quite flat but the bad roads will still keep your speed severely limited. There will hardly be any greenery around and Suru river will run slow with no rapid or waterfalls anywhere.
You will continue traveling right next to Suru river until Rangdum, which is another small village on the way, just a few houses to be precise but it is the midway point of the journey. If you are planning to reach Padum the next day, then you can spend the night here or else have you lunch and be on your way towards Padum which even though is just another 100 odd kilometers but will take some time to reach.
Rangdum to Pensi La: 5 Kilometers from Rangdum is the Rangdum Gompa. Located on a small hill, this monastery looks like a fortress and in fact was used as one by Dogra armies of General Zorawar Singh. It is an ancient monastery from 18th century and a visit is recommended.
Rangdum is also the last inhabited place in Suru valley and the road here will take a 90 degree turn before it starts moving south towards Pensi la, on the other side of which the Zanskar valley is located. Pensi La is considered as one of the “easy passes” as the ascent is not really that difficult and people who did not know that it was there tend to even miss the fact that they just crossed a high altitude pass. The valley now will become quite wide and the river that has been running close to the road will now flow far away.A long shallow drive, gentle ascent, and few zig zags will take you to the top of the pass before you even realize it. You will notice a small body of water near the road atop Pensi La. These in fact are two small lakes called Ta Tso and the Lang Tso lakes. Beyond these lakes, you will see the massive Drang Drung glacier. There will be a noticeable chill in the wind owing to the vast reserves of snow at the glacier. The glacier lies much below the road and the view in itself is quite dramatic.
Pensi La to Tungri to Padum: From Pensi La, you will start on your final stretch of the journey to Padum and descend into Zanskar valley, one of the remotest valleys in India; connected by a single motorable road or I shall say a single dirt trail to rest of the country. Road will continue to be a gravel path until a few kilometers before Padum when you will once again see Tar on the road. Chibra is the first village in Zanskar valley after Pensi La and post that, it will be a series of small villages. At Tungri village, you will cross over to right side of the river and from there; it is a straight run to Padum. Sani Gompa, which is also known as possibly the oldest Gompa in Zanskar valley, is a place worth visiting in Padum.
If you asked me, Zanskar is definitely a place worth spending a couple of days. There is not much to see here except for the natural beauty of barren cold desert. If time permits, spend a day here and visit the nearby areas. There is a road that goes towards Hanumil, another towards Dzonkhul and a third under construction road that goes towards Shinku La, a high altitude pass which when completed will connect the Zanskar valley to Lahaul valley. This road will link the towns of Padum and Darcha. Let us take a look at some of these other roads.
Padum to Hanumil: This is an under construction road which has been completed until the village of Hanumil and a little after that as well I believed. Once completed, this road will run direct from Padum to all the way till the town of Nimmu, drastically cutting down the distance between Ladakh and Zanskar valley. Road till Hanumil is in near perfect condition and this 50-60 kilometers long journey should not take you more than a couple of hours to complete. You will be travelling along the Zanskar River all the way. Just as you leave Padum, the road will cross over to the right side of the river and will stay on the right side. Apart from stunning landscapes, a few other places to see on this route are Pibiting, Karsha, Stongde gompas and the Zanla fort. Once you reach Hanumil, and if time allows, you can continue driving as far as the road goes. As I mentioned, this stretch is still under construction and at some point you will reach the end from where you will have to turn back for Padum.
Padum to Reru: As I mentioned above in the article, this road when completed will run all the way till Darcha in Lahaul valley, across Shinku La, also known as Shingo La. For now you can only drive up to the small village of Reru and visit Bardan gompai on the route. This goma is located on a huge rock right next to the river and is worth a visit.
Another way to reach Padum from Sringar Leh highway is to take the road from Drass to just after Sankoo, via Umba La. This road is however not at all recommended, no matter which vehicle you are travelling in. A 4×4 vehicle is a must to travel on this road and even then this is one hell of a treacherous drive. Even I have never travelled on this road so cannot really comment but as far as I have heard, it is best avoided.
If you are not traveling in your own vehicle, you can chose to either catch a Bus or hire a taxi to Padum. There is a regular bus service by J&K SRTC to Padum from Leh and Kargil. This bus will stop at several places for sightseeing and is a good budget option to travel. If you are planning to hire a taxi, please keep in mind that the taxi you hired from either Srinagar or Leh will not be allowed to travel to Zanskar valley. For this, you must hire a local cab from Kargil itself. If you are planning to rent a motorcycle though, there isn’t much of a choice in Kargil for this (not sure if this has changed lately, last I checked there wasn’t any such option in Kargil). You will have to rent a motorcycle from either Leh or Srinagar.
In terms of accommodation, Sankoo, Panikhar and Parkachik has only a government run tourist bungalow. At Rangdum, there is both a PWD guest house and a tourist bungalow. At Padum however, there are multiple options in form of guest houses, government tourist bungalow and camping sites as well.
Nothing fancy but you can find small restaurants/dhabas at most of the major villages on the route. A puncture repair shop is available at Sankoo and Panikhar. At Padum, you can find a phone booth, several restaurants, a petrol pump (mostly in a non-working condition though), mechanic and surprisingly an internet café as well.
A few other useful tips,
- The bus service from Leh to Padum is on weekly basis. This bus starts from Leh, halts at Kargil and then continues to Padum the next day. Availability of seats in this bus too is an uncertainty.
- There is a bus service from Kargil to Sankoo and Panikhar every morning.
- Another bus from Kargil leaves for Parkachik daily, though I am not sure if this is the same bus that goes to Sankoo and continues to Parkachik or a different bus.
- Once you get to Parkachik, you can hire a cab from there to reach Padum. Do not count on this though as the number of cabs in Parkachik is severely limited and if there is no cab available on the day of your arrival, you will have no other choice but to break your journey there and continue the next day when there is a cab available.
- The fastest, most convenient way to get to Padum from Kargil is to hire a private cab but this is of course also the most expensive one.
I hope this information was helpful. If you have any further questions, please feel free to ask in the comments section below and I will be glad to answer. If you have travelled to Zanskar valley and have a more recent information to add here that can be of help to others, please do so in the comments section and I will add it to the article.