Driving in Ladakh takes light years to get from place to place. If our driver averaged 12 miles an hour, he was torking along. Out of Dha Hanu by 8:00a through the Aryan Valley, following the Indus River known as the cradle of civilization. Frequent stops to show permits before the slog up and over the Rhozen-la Pass at 4,100 meters/13,451 feet.
Through Barcha and into busy Kargil. Kargil is the second-largest town in Ladakh and lies halfway between Kashmir and the Indus Valley; primarily a transit point for travelers heading to Srinigar, Leh or Zanskar with decent guesthouses. Kargil was once an important staging post on the trade caravan route. The original itinerary called for a stay in Kargil tonight. However, the Muslim population was in a potential “kill Americans” mode over Osama bin Laden’s death and Lobsang didn’t want us to overnight here. All India hotels require intense documentation; passport, Indian Visa and permits so there would be no getting around the “American” label.
Kargil is the transfer area for passengers continuing into Zanskar. Goodbye to SkyWalker Travel’s driver, hello driver #2 who would take over until Padum where driver #3 would carry on from there. I told you it’s not easy to get to Zanskar. All vehicles from here on out were run by a Kargil Union. We pulled into a transfer point and the crew began unloading everything from our 4×4 into the new 4×4. It’s the luck of the draw what kind of vehicle you get and that includes good tires. Steve took one look at the tires on our new 4×4 and thought, “They’ll never make it.” Bald, areas with no tread, you get the drift. This Union operates like taxi lines outside an airport. The next vehicle in line gets the fare regardless of its working condition. That took quite a bit of time.
Loaded up once again we now had to drive 120 kilometers/80 miles to Rangdum plateau, halfway between Kargil and Padum. Rangdum is the highest inhabited region in the Suru valley. It wasn’t until Kargil that the really bad, excruciating, road journey into Zanskar began. A drive that will bring even strong men to their knees. Teeth rattling, bone jolting, knee-locking, whine…whine…whine.
We putted along at 12 miles per hour, Stanzin trying to take minds off knee/back pains with Ladakhi information. And, we did our best to enjoy the incredible scenery. Ladakh is dry, arid, mountainous and then along comes a pocket of green nourished by the Suru River.
- There are three separate areas in Ladakh – Zanskar, Nubra/Shyok Valleys and the area around Leh.
- The Suru and Zanskar valleys form a great trough enclosed by the Himalayas and the Zanskar range.
- The Suru Valley will rise to 4,400 meters/14,436 feet at Pensi-la pass tomorrow, the official gateway to Zanskar.
- Zanskar is only accessible between June and mid-October. Or take the popular winter Chaddar Trek on the frozen Zanskar River. A demanding, 15-day trek that is not for me!
Finally lunch at 2:30p along the Suru River with wonderful views of Nun-Kun massif. Nun is the higher of the two icy, pyramid peaks at 7135 meters/23,372 feet. Kun couldn’t be seen behind Nun, a little shorter at 7077 meters/23,218 feet. These mountains are a popular mountain climbing destination because of its accessibility from Kargil.
I really encourage you to watch the embedded video to see for yourselves what the journey into Zanskar was like. Another hour before I almost shouted, “Please stop the car. I have got to stretch my frozen legs.” Perhaps it was gut instinct but this turned out to be a perfect spot. Number one because women with flocks of goats, sheep and Dzo’s (an interbred half cow, half yak) were busily gathering turds for fuel. Number Two because one of the defective tires went flat. Steve was right all along. There was no way those decrepit tires could withstand the abominable road.
One tire down, three to go? By now, a quick death would have been a relief. Stanzin had good news. We had arrived at the Rangdum Plateau, our camping destination. Ten (I repeat, 10) agonizing car hours was over with approximately another eight to go tomorrow! No. We were “not there yet.” And what was even more pathetic, we’d have to make the same journey back from Zanskar.