People, esp the mountaineers, and those involved in defense or administrative positions often talk about the Depsang Plains, the Karakorams, and how at every turn majestic glaciers come down on the very road itself. Unfortunately, such wonders lie in the disputed regions, in no mans lands and most of us will never get a chance to witness those wonders. However, fret not, for tucked in a very big corner is a land of wonders. And the most wondrous thing about this land is that no permits or permissions are needed.
For you and me, this is the ultimate glacier highway, with every turn giving you a glimpse of a lofty peak, and some turns... well have glaciers coming down to the very road itself.
Whether its the the massive Brankta/Kangriz glacier which drops right onto the road at Parakchik, or the long and windy Durang Durung which wows travelers at the Pensi La or the numerous little and big glaciers which come into view at every curve.
And if you have had enough of them, do not worry, massive peaks like Nun and Kun will fill your view, and most who come here wonder.... is this real.
Such is the charm of this paradise on earth, that among the residents of the Alps, who are themselves no strangers to the mountains, this region is the most favoured trekking destination.
That said, the condition of the road is inversely proportional to the scenery, which is a roundabout way of saying there is no road. Though some have done this route in hatches and sedans, its best advised to have a high GC vehicle, for often the surface deteriorates to something resembling the surface of the moon.
Our journey to this wonderland starts from the town of Kargil. We proceed southwards from the town, along the Suru river.
In the month of October, the vegetation turns yellow, and the riot of colors is very similar to the Arctic Ruska
As the road progresses, villages become less frequent, however the road surface is a delight. Its smooth and there are few "mountain" sections. That said, the road is gradually rising.
Forty kms ahead of Kargil is the town of Sankoo. It takes an hour or little more to reach here. This town is one of the few places on the route where you will get food. A side road from this town branches to Umba La, connecting you directly to Drass. However, the road is very bad, and the section of prone to frequent landslides.
Anyways, we proceed forward, and reach the town of Panikhar. These 25kms in the heart of Suru valley are what give you the best views of the mountains. You catch the magnificent Nun and Kun, and at places the valley opens up to reveal large flood planes.
At Panikhar, things take a dramatic turn. First and foremost the road vanishes. In October 2012 there was frantic road construction activity happening, and aim is to tar the road all the way to Rangdum. However, when and if, are the big questions.
Second dramatic thing which happens is the change in scenery. The valley narrows, and the road starts approaching the river. The surface gets worse and worse.
Parakchik village is about 20kms ahead of Panikhar, and immediately after the village, you get a sight which will make you stop, and really wonder. The dirty Parakchik glacier, which is actually Branktan+Kangriz comes right upto the road itself, separated from you by just the narrow river. To view something so powerful and majestic at such close quarters is a humbling experience. And then to think that twenty years from now it may no longer exist is equally depressing.
This is one of the most dramatic sections of the journey. As you leave the glacier, you will find that as a driver you cannot afford to enjoy the scenery. The road is a collection of rocks, simply waiting to rip open your tires, or the sump guard. To your left rise lofty cliffs, with constant thread of natures missiles raining down. Till a couple of years ago, lot of rock mining used to happen here. The activity still happens, but is less now. This contributes to the road condition in a big way.
As you exit this section, the road opens up again, and paradise is back. You can relax. But the 10kms from the glacier to this point are really bad.
Many stop here for a picnic. A nice spot, isn't it?
But wait. 20.5kms from the Parakchik Glacier likes a spot which many ignore. In their hurry to reach Padum, people forget that the journey is a destination.
34.060072N 76.200790E - Yes this is the location of another majestic glacier, almost invisible from the road. But if you climb up to your left, a wonder reveals itself.
A glacier, hidden behind a small hill. We tried to cross the river to get a better view, but could not find a crossing.
This spot is not just lovely because of its glaciers. As the valley widens, marshes are formed, and here you can find ducks and geese, which have flown from as far as the north pole, on their way down south to escape the winter.
This indeed, is the most beautiful section of the trip. If you visit in Autumn, the yellow grass will make it all look like a middle earth movie set.
In sheer beauty, the suru valley here surpasses anything you would have seen in Ladakh. Having seen the Alps, as well as this region, I can safely say, that every second peak here can make the former seem like ant hills. Lack of human settlement in large numbers means this beauty is untouched.
As we proceed further, the landscape gets better, and more wild. Every jagged mountain calls a challenge. Climb if you dare.
As we approach the town of Rangdum, the valley fully widens. This is the end of Suru valley. Ahead of us lies a pass which will drop us into Zanskar. But first, its time for Rangdum. Rangdum with its dhabas and a JKTDC "hotel" is a popular lunch spot.
And to add, the views of Rangdum are the most magnificent in the region
This is the Alpine paradise
Randum also has a Gompa, which like most Gompas is perched on a hill. The hill is not small, but the big mountain makes it look tiny
By now, we have been on the road for around six hours. With brisk pace this distance from Kargil to Rangdum can be done in 5 hours. But if you did this in 5 hours, you have not done it at all.
Though rangdum is only 120 odd kms from Kargil, even maintaining 20kmph is a big achievement.
If the journey is your destination, I recommend 9-10 hours from Kargil to Randum, for there will be many diversions, many river banks, and small treks which will hold your fancy. Rangdum is the perfect night halt, I must say!
After randum, the road is just a track which was formed as vehicles came and went. A local at Padum once told me, that in the 1990s, you could not do this route in anything but a tractor or a truck. The potholes would swallow even the jeeps and MUVs.
Shortly after Randum, starts the climb to Pensi La. The views are as dramatic as ever!
And right near the Pass, like the twin lakes Stat Tso and Lang Tso
This is an ideal picnic spot, and fortunately, you won't find three or thirty idiots here. Just tranquility
More glaciers reveal themselves
you will also find glacial streams. Do you have a water bottle. Fill her up please!
But nothing prepares you for what appears at the down slop of the pass.
The Durang Durung.This glacier is something nobody forgets. I am ready to visit Zanskar every year just to get a glimpse of this wondrous site. Do not confine yourself to the road. Climb the hill, for those who rise get the best views.
For almost the entire descend, the Durang Durung keeps you company. We are in Zanskar valley now, and the landscape is dramatic.
Padum is mere 3-4 hours away now.
And the glaciers and peaks keep coming
Sometimes, wolves also show their face.
The river you are going along is "Stod", which will eventually merge with Zanskar. So technically, its Stod valley I guess
Padum, however, is sort of an anti-climax. If monasteries are your thing, many monasteries lie here. Otherwise, there is little to do.
An excursion around Padum is the Shiela Fall, the site of a village which was wiped by an avalanche many decades ago. The new settlement now sites below the fall
You can also admire the blue Zanskar
IF you are out for adventure, you can go to the end of the road towards Leh from Zanskar. BRO is working on a direct route from Nimmu(confluence near Leh) to Padum. They say the road will be done in 2017.
Another route from Darcha(Near Jispa) to Padum is also in the works, though it may take a decade since many lofty passes block the way.
For around Padum, here are a few pics with GPS location.
1. Hill overlooking Padum
3. Burdun Gompa
4. Sheila fall from the road
Of course, there is a lot more to explore. Every track, every road goes somewhere. There are passes hidden between the mountains everywhere. Padum is a wonderland, and if you are a trekker, its best go go in an organized group, esp for long treks like the 7 day Lamayuru to Padum Trek Accommodation
Sankoo - Guest Houses
Panikhar - Guest Houses,JKTDC
Parakchik - JKTDC
Rangdum - JKTDC + home stay
Padum - Hotels, Guest houses, JKTDC, Home Stays Permits
No permits required. A police checkpost few kms before Padum has a register where you enter your name and details.