The minute I heard that a new route leading into Zanskar Valley was functional, from Shinku La into Padum, I knew it was a trip I would take soon. In the October of 2019, my photographer, Ashutosh, and I, embarked on an adventure we knew would break our backs but fix our spirits.
Being a traveller in the truest sense of the word, my takeaways from all my travels go beyond the experiences. What I bring back is a wealth of introspection and inspiration to live life anew. It is why I keep choosing the remotest of mountain villages, for it is only as being spectators to a life untarnished by tourism that one can imbibe what one goes out to seek.
If your travel style is better defined as ‘vacationing’ or ‘holidaying’, then chances are that you would give Zanskar Valley a miss and head to the more adequately-equipped and glamorous Leh. But if the zest to travel runs through your veins and you seek experiences to reminisce about years from now, then Zanskar Valley may be your most memorable trip ever.
OUR TRIP TO ZANSKAR VALLEY –
Setting forth on our journey to Padum from Manali, we bid farewell to our favourite hoteliers at Ride Inn and move forth to Jispa. Jispa remains one of the most beautiful towns I have visited and we decide to spend the night here before undertaking the daunting journey into Zanskar Valley.
We rise fresh and invigorated, have a quick breakfast and get into our car. There is a mix of excitement and dread that we feel and we prepare ourselves for the worst. The descent from Rohtang to Lahaul Valley is lined with fields and we pull over to have a quick chat with the many women working on these fields. Lines of cauliflowers dot the plantation and we discover that these women are mainly from Nepal, here to work on the fields from summer until autumn. We stretch our legs and say our goodbyes to the ladies and are meted with laughter. There is something about the crinkling of eyes on a face dried out by the sun that just catches you off guard, I think as I rationalize the rush of warmth that I feel.
THE JOURNEY TO SHINKU LA
Passing through these smooth roads has been a breeze, but the real challenge begins on our ascent to Shinku La. The first thing to be mentioned here is the lack of any eateries along the way and one should always carry sufficient food with them. As far as the drive is concerned, this is where the back-breaking journey starts. The road uphill is a series of sharp hairpin bends and our Scorpio has a long turning axle. This means a lot of back and forth and the Scorpio being a diesel car, it is almost impossible to conquer this steep climb without the inertia of movement. The only thing that comes to our rescue is engaging the 4×4 and at this point, I would strongly suggest not undertaking the journey without a 4×4 drive.
As we manage to climb uphill, slowly but steadily, our bodies resembling rag dolls, we come upon stream crossing after stream crossing. There are no markers here to guide the way and we make calculations based on our limited knowledge but luckily, we arrive at the magnificent Shinku La without too much trouble. We spend some time here clicking pictures of the glacier and its stream, and looking around at the jaw-dropping scenery, everything blanketed by the snow. We huddle back into the warmth of the car and begin our descent into the other side. The path is full of hairpin bends again, and our struggle continues. We spot another glacier with an accompanying stream here. Close to the stream, we find a small shop and disembark for a cup of tea. The shop owner is boisterous and tells us about how the untimely snow last year blocked the route completely and left so many workers stranded. Fortunately, all of them were rescued. We bid farewell to him and continue our drive. On the way we are greeted by a local driving a pickup truck. I am amazed at how his rickety vehicle is coping in this terrain and am shocked to learn that he has a 4×4 drive too! We have a hearty laugh, shake hands and move in opposite directions.
Crossing streams on the way to Shinku La
ON TO PURNEY
The drive to Kurgiakh is uneventful and we reach this utterly beautiful village by mid afternoon. We have our lunch by the stream that flows right through the village to join the river originating from Shinku La. Our lunch is a simple meal of Aloo Parathas packed by our gracious hotel owner in Jispa. The food warms our bodies as we start to feel the nip in the air. Reluctant as we are to leave the gurgling of the stream behind, we are also in a rush to reach Purney. For all the mental preparation we have done, we are completely unprepared when the first few jolts hit our body on this path. A cloud of dust formed by the loose soil covers our SUV entirely and as we attempt to brush it off from the side mirrors, we are rewarded with a magnificent view. Behind us lies the solitary and spectacular Gonbo Ronjon mountain. It is a mountain unlike any other that I have seen, standing singularly and symmetrically tying up the surrounding landscape into a sight to behold.
We brave the rough path with cries of pain, sometimes using laughter as a means to distract ourselves. We cannot wait to reach Purney and get off the car. We almost cry in relief when our GPS tells us we’ve arrived, but it is a short-lived joy as it turns out to be wrong information. As we finally find our way into the village, we make way to our homestay for the night. Our journey has completely worn us out and all we can manage to do is accept hot tea and a simple meal before retiring for the night. We make audible groans as we lie on our mattresses, all but ready to pass out.
The next morning is kinder on us, and we wake up to the sound of a tractor. Making our way out, we witness the process of winnowing. Piles of wheat lie on the ground and a tractor makes circles around it to separate the husk from the crop. We are asked to freshen up, and we proceed to doing that.
We face the challenging task of using traditional dry pits, water being a scarcity in the region. In almost all Zanskar Valley, in typical Ladakhi tradition, there is no water inside the houses. There is generally a sole tap outside the house, where one draws water to brush their teeth or have a bath. Modern houses are slowly cleaving away from this practice, creating tremendous strain on the ecosystem.
We have a hearty breakfast of eggs and rotis before we leave for Padum. Our hosts’ family friend decides to join us for this leg of the journey and we are happy to listen to his stories. He has a tendency to hum tunes under his breath, and we ask him to sing out loud and he obliges us. He keeps us in lively spirits throughout, almost making us forget the constant rollercoaster effect of the roads.
Read about the rest of our trip in Part Two of this series.
Thank you very much to you and your team for arranging this fantastic tour. One of the best pick from this tour was your meticulous planning and promptness of service. All arrangements were fantastic, be it a delivery of vehicle at Chandigarh airport, hotels particularly at Chandigarh, Leh, Nubra, Pangong. However the best was at Jispa, Kargil and Srinagar for different reasons. Jispa was simple but authentic with very tasty food.
Rajesh & Gauri Natu
Graphic Designer, Apple
Sunil, after I ran 21k Marathon I bragged about it for years. The same is being repeated again, with my ambition to drive across the Himalayas, which was almost faded with Srinagar under curfew. You and Chetan were the spark to our fire that we could do this drive and without a single trouble. Driving is a passion but driving thru places where there are no roads is trouble, but your breakup of program and awesome car condition helped us actually sail thru. Three cheers and five stars.
Absolute Networks, Mumbai
Wow. wow, wow. What a experience! We took the route of Delhi - Jammu - Srinagar - Leh - Sarchu - Manali - Delhi. Sunil Kapoor gave us excellent service which includes his next to new 4WD in immaculate condition and all hotels were top class. Coming from Australia, we were bit nervous in start but when we met Sunil, we had full trust and all went very positive. Sunil gave us perfect instructions and everything was according to plan. Thank you Sunil and your team for our one of the best experience in life you have provided us.
Director, Webential, Australia
Eight of us from Sri Lanka got Sunil to arrange a self driven tour to Leh and we are very happy with our decision. He was punctual, trustworthy and met our expectations. The service provided was very professional. As foreigners it’s hard to arrange such a tour by ourselves and Unwind outdoor filled in the gap perfectly. All places we stayed were nice and decent. Should specifically mention about the two Scorpios which we instantly fell in love with. They were very well maintained ...
Friends from SriLanka
After days of research, we finally came across a facebook page called ‘Unwind Outdoors’. It seemed like our dream was going to be finally true. Very reasonably priced and Sunil from Unwind was like a know-it-all person.
The itinerary was so crisp and so very well laid out that there was no reason for us to worry other than coping up with nature’s fury.
Clifford Chance, Delhi
We did a SUV self drive trip from Chandigarh to Ladakh and back organized by Unwind Outdoor.
Highly recommend Unwind Outdoor as Sunil and Manpreet took care of everything we needed (car, hotel bookings, sightseeing and food recommendations, permits) and everything was organized seamlessly. Sunil was very patient with all our queries, giving suggestions and options to suit our preferences.
Ashish & Neha Thadani
Great to see the know-how of the Unwind Outdoor team regarding every aspect of the Srinagar - Leh - Chandigarh self drive trip. From weather conditions, to road conditions, to health/clothing requirements, and also driving instructions - Sunil and Manpreet are warm, meticulous and knowledgable. Villa Himalaya in Sonamarg surpassed all our expectations and ensured that our expected standards for the rest of the trip were extremely high.
Symbiosis Law School, Mumbai
Thanks Sunil for arranging a wonderful trip. Everything went well and we were in good hands with friendly and competent drivers. Accommodation was good and tents were comfortable beyond our expectations. We didn't have problem with food choices. It was a totally rejuvenating vacation and experience for us. Thanks from us in Singapore!
We had an amazing 9-day from Manali to Leh. Serene, breathless and picturesque. High altitude sickness was a big issue for us but we were in good hands.
Unwind Outdoor was superb in arranging and coordinating the trip. Taking care of all arrangements and checking-in on us. Kudos to Sunil and his team.
Assistant Director, Jurong Town Corporation, Singapore
We travelled as a couple & completed a self drive trip from Delhi-Jammu-Srinagar-Kargil-Leh-Nubra-Pangong-Tso Moriri-Sarchu-Manali-Delhi. Itinerary was meticulously designed to be a mix of adventure and comfort. Hotel choices were best. Support was available at all points in case of emergency.Vehicle provided was top notch. Thanks to Mr. Sunil Kapoor for personally putting in efforts to maintain such high standards.
Nikhil & Neha Mazumdar
Manager L&T, Mumbai
Six of us (two families) travelled to Leh in Jul / Aug 2015 and we had an excellent experience with Unwind Outdoor. From the very beginning of our excited planning phase, Sunil has been willingly suggesting us options, number of days, places to visit etc. He has all the knowledge of the terrain, passionate about trekking and traveling himself, so he understands travel-crazy people such as me and my quirks.
We landed in Leh in time for cloudbursts and flashfloods and landslides (along with mud and rocks sliding too). Despite Nature's fury, Sunil and Skarma made sure we were utmost safe and comfortable. These guys are just not into travel business, they help people fulfil their travel dreams. Truly! Go guys!!
Barclays Bank, Bangalore