Nguyen Quynh Anh

Set high in the Himalayas in Northern India, Zanskar charms intrepid travelers with its harsh beauty

 Going to Zanskar felt like traveling back in time to another world and another era that only existed in my mind from folk tales I had read as a child. The kingdom of Zanskar – one of the last shelters of Tibetan Buddhist culture in the towering Himalayas – appeared before me like a fairytale come true.

2,500 years old, Phugtal Ghompa is the most remote monastery in Zanskar

Zanskar lies in one of the most remote corners of Northern India. The region was once a territory of the ancient kingdom of Guge in the west of Tibet. Nowadays, the Zanskar Valley is home to 13,000 inhabitants across a number of villages in the Kargil District, State of Jammu and Kashmir.

 Zanskar is one of a few places in the Himalayas to stay largely untouched by modern life. Due to its remote location among mountains as high as 7,000m, coupled with regional political turbulence, the valley has been isolated from the outside world for centuries. As a result, Zanskar is one of the last remaining shelters of ancient Tibetan Buddhist culture.

A remote village on the mountain side

The only route linking Zanskar to Kargil stretches 230km. It takes one to two days by bus to reach this remote area. However, this route is only open for three or four months per year between July and October. It’s one of the coldest and driest paces in the Himalayas. Winter arrives here sooner than in the neighboring highlands. In the winter, this region is cut off by thick snow. During the winter months, people must trek on the frozen Zanskar River for up to seven days to reach the closest town.

The Himalayan Range surrounding Zanskar after the first snowfall

I set off before dawn at 5am and spent a long day on the bus, finally approaching the entry to Zanskar: Pensi La Pass at a height of 4,400m. This pass marks the boundary between the Islamic Suru Valley and Buddhist Zanskar Valley. After the pass, the meandering road winds through a vast and unspoiled region that spans over 5,000sqkm and comprises undulating mountain ranges and flowing valleys. Zanskar is home to ancient monasteries, fortresses and ruined palaces that few visitors have the chance to reach.

The Karsha Monastery, which is under the control of the younger brother of the Dalai Lama, is the largest monastery in the region and dates back to the 11th century. Pure white houses constructed along the mountains form a fortress-like compound on the left bank of the Doda River. Seen from afar it resembles a scene in a fairytale. Strong winds toss veils of dirt across this arid valley, making the landscape seem even more blurry and surreal.

A small white chorten stands beneath a vast and barren slope in the Zanskar Range

My most memorable experience in Zanskar was my pilgrimage to Phugtal Monastery, which is 2,500 years old and accessible only by foot. After several hours by bus from Padum Town, the capital of Zanskar, all along Tsarap to the end of the road, getting to Phugtal requires a one- or two-day trek. The trail is quite dangerous due to its steep bends. Sometimes the trail was barely wide enough for one foothold beside a deep abyss. The highland desert climate made the days as hot as summer, but after sunset the temperature dropped below zero C, leaving ill-prepared trekkers exhausted. Autumn is a special time in the valley. Fields of barley in far off villages were already harvested, leaving colored carpets of rocks, sometimes adorned with glistening gold and red patches of leaves. Chilly rivers the exotic sapphire color of melting glaciers flowed down from the high mountains.

A small village at the ‘gateway’ of Zanskar covered in snow

The compound of Phugtal Monastery was constructed around a huge cave high in a precipitous cliff. It looked like a giant beehive from above. When I arrived, it was already dark. High and dry, I admired the monastery in the moonlight under the starry firmament, soothed by the absolutely tranquility. At that moment I appreciated the magnificence and harshness of Zanskar.

I bid farewell to Zanskar on an early winter’s day. In one night, the first snowfall had totally changed the landscape of the valley. Penzi La Pass was the last milestone to get out of Zanskar and also a big challenge as the snow had left the road home much more slippery. Luckily we managed to travel safely down the pass, leaving behind our grueling but rewarding days in this fairylike snow-capped kingdom.