The Zanskar Valley in North India’s Ladakh region is a land of legends and snow leopards, of yaks and yak herders, of farmers and monks, of chortens and prayer flags, of solitude and isolation.
Well above the tree line, the landscape is harsh and rugged, a kind of desert in the sky.
There is a general perception that getting to Ladakh and beyond is difficult but nothing can be further from the truth.
You can fly or drive to Manali and do the exhilarating Manali to Leh road over high passes, or fly direct to Leh from Delhi. Airfares are very competitive on this route.
I had been to Ladakh before and couldn’t wait to get back to this region.
This time, I had the opportunity to explore the Zanskar Valley and do it from the back of a Royal Enfield ‘Bullet’ motorcycle, a legendary machine, although this trip can be done by car as well.
Sparsely populated and breathtakingly beautiful, the Zanskar Valley has no paved roads, a few high passes, hanging glaciers (the Drang Drung glacier is said to flow with garnets and sapphires), a collection of ancient Buddhist monasteries clinging to dizzying cliffs and a few hamlets of Balti farmers who converted to Islam in the 16th century.
There are three very small hubs in this narrow valley: Rangdum, Padum and Zangla where the valley closes in and you cannot go any further.
We had our share of flat tyres and delays and were ultimately rescued by a Balti family of farmers who took us in on a blustery night when we rocked up to their village Parkachick, exhausted after pushing a disabled bike for four kilometers.
The family gave us a room in their farmhouse, fed us dinner and helped us the following day to get the flat repaired.
We spent two nights at their farmhouse and became part of the family.
Aside from the awesome landscapes, it’s the people you meet that makes this trip so memorable.
Chance encounters – which were nothing short of miraculous – allowed us to overcome some serious difficulties. There was always someone ready to help in the most extraordinary way.
At one point, after the patched tyre of our motorbike exploded under the rough conditions just before Penzi-La, we had to hitch a ride back to Rangdum, abandoning the bike by the roadside.
The first truck that appeared (after a half an hour wait, such is the scarcity of vehicles on the road) generously gave us, our luggage and the Enfield’s back wheel, a ride back to Rangdum.
The motorbike had to stay behind overnight by the side of the road. This would have been a worrying thought anywhere else in the world, but we were confident it would be untouched.
As we were riding inside the highly decorated and spacious truck’s cabin, a lone rider appeared on the horizon.
We stopped him to ask if he had a spare tube we could buy, knowing that Rangdum had neither a service station nor a repair shop.
Basheer, an English teacher from Kerala teaching in Chandigarh, gallantly parted with his only spare tube and would take no money for it. There still are people like that in this world.
The following morning, we were hoping for another truck to take us back to the bike when a distinctive Australian voice in the Rangdum hotel’s restaurant attracted my attention.
Tsering, a Nepali-born woman living in Sydney, happily shared her vehicle with us, dropping us by the untouched bike, a four-hour drive away towards Padum.
Until then we had not seen any Australians. Miracles do happen.
By the time we cleared Penzi-La we were very hungry as there are no eating places between Rangdum and Padum, the next town.
But again, something extraordinary happened. A yak herder’s temporary encampment came into sight. A short conversation in Hindi resulted in an invitation to join the herders and have lunch with them.
We were very grateful to receive from the nomads’ weathered hands a bowlful of paneer, dahi and freshly made rotis, accompanied by glassfuls of yak butter tea. What else can one dream of?
Padum, with its busy two streets was a bit of a shock after riding through such remote and solitary rockscapes.
Overwhelmed by the sudden business of the place, the Mont Blanc guesthouse at the end of the road, surrounded by an organic vegetable garden, appealed to us.
There we met, again by chance, the owner of another guesthouse in Zangla, the last village at the end of the valley.
The Padum to Zangla road is being widened and improved at the moment and this made an already tough road even tougher.
Riding over sharp rocks scattered all over is a teeth-shattering experience. The actual roadworks fill the air with dust and grit.
The road seems tortuous and unending, but Zangla is worth the pain.
Harvest time combined the hum of bumblebees with the hum of distant grass cutting machines. The smell of haymaking made us drowsy and high at the same time.
Dorjay, the owner of Dragon Guesthouse in Zangla, made sure we were pampered and treated us as his children.
He practically carried me off the bike to our cottage, removing my boots and giving me a leg massage all while uttering endearing words. I must have looked shattered after hours of riding on the bad road.
The two-room cottage (separate from the farmhouse), is cozy, warm and has a terrace to relax and have drinks at.
With the Royal Castle overlooking the entire ancient village, Zangla is the best place to visit in the Valley.
Meandering lanes take you past whitewashed farmhouses with wood piled up on top of the roofs to last the winter or to have in store for a family cremation.
Rows of stupas melt like wax candles in the harsh environment, lending the village and air of holiness. The King’s Castle – being restored by a group of Hungarian volunteer architects and engineers – is worth the climb.
The Zanskar Valley will stay with you forever. It is the trip of a lifetime.
Photos: Vikas Panghal