Zanskar: A Remote Buddhist World
A photographic expedition to explore the most isolated valley of the Indian Himalayas
Monday 6th September – Saturday 18th September 2021
Leader: Julie-Anne Davies and a local cultural guide
|13 Days||Group Size Limit 7|
- A chance to visit the most remote and inaccessible corner of the Indian Himalaya in the Zanskar Valley of Ladakh
- Visit some of the Zanskar’s most spectacular monasteries including Rangdum, Stongde and Bardan
- Enjoy an overnight stay in the incredible Phugtal Monastery, one of the most isolated monasteries on earth
- Meet the friendly nuns at the nunnery in beautiful Karsha
- Explore the ‘clay forest’ eroded landscapes and the stunning monastery of Lamayuru
- An adventurous drive into the Zanskar, crossing several high passes, including the spectacular Penzi La which has views over the Darang Durung Glacier
- Visit the beautiful Pibiting Monastery and the ancient Mosque at Padum
- Meet traditional Zanskari yak herding women and learn how they create dairy products like cheese and yoghurt from yak milk
- Street photography around the key attractions in Leh including Thiksey monastery, Shey monastery, Leh Palace and Leh Market
- Explore ancient Ladakhi Tibetan cave art and the oldest monasteries of Ladakh in Alchi
- Visit the stunningly beautiful Brokpa people of Garkhon in the Aryan Valley
- Explore the ancient rock petroglyphs of the Indus Valley at Domkhar
ZANSKAR PHOTOGRAPHY TOURS WITH WILD IMAGES
Cloistered within the dramatic mountains of the Great Himalayan range – averaging an altitude of 3,600m and sprinkled with peaks as high as 7,000m – India’s Zanskar valley is unreachable for all but four months of every year. At other times it is hemmed in by the frozen expanses of the river Zanskar and only accessible by one of the most treacherous ice-river treks you can undertake in all of the Himalayas – the phenomenal Chadar Trek. For a brief window of warmer weather, the isolated Zanskar opens its doors to the outside world where the most intrepid travellers can trek or take a road journey to visit the most isolated corner of the Himalayas in all of India. In 2021 Wild Images has arranged a unique Zanskar photography tour to photograph the stunning Zanskar Valley, its monasteries and nunneries, its people and their celebrated harvest festivals that take place in September.
The rugged Zanskar saw its first western travellers only in 1979. Prior to that it had been more or less fabled, a place that had seen no outside influences and where the only access in to it was on foot. In the last 40 years that has changed with the introduction of trekking routes and a seasonal road but even the most hardy Ladakhi people still consider the two day journey to reach it as difficult.
They have enshrined this beautiful remote valley in the following saying: “The Zanskar land is so barren and the passes so high that only our fiercest enemies or our best friends would want to visit us.”
The existence of the Zanskar valley first came into the media spotlight around a decade ago when the BBC’s Human Planet film makers aired poignant footage of a few small children trekking over a hundred kilometres to get back to school after their winter vacation. At the time it was filmed, the valley was considered to be one of the last few bastions of ancient Tibetan Buddhist beliefs on earth.
These days only the most intrepid travellers make the journey in to this valley and when they arrive, they are greeted with friendly Zanskari people who are mostly engaged in keeping Yaks or Tsos (a hybrid of Yaks and normal cows). A small amount of agriculture exists where altitude and the supply of water allows for small fields of barley to be grown.
Joining our Zanskar Photography Tour will allow you to witness the beauty of remote Zanskar villages; explore ancient monasteries; learn from yak herders how they make yoghurt and cheese; join monks and nuns in their daily prayers and participate in the festivities of the Zanskar’s lively and colourful harvest festivals.
Our Zanskar photography tour will begin with our arrival in Leh where we will spend a day resting and doing some gentle sightseeing to become acclimatised to the high altitude. We will practice some street photography in the old quarter of the city, visit Thiksey and Shey Monasteries and the Leh palace.
LAMAYURU AND MULBEKH
We will then begin our drive along the spectacular Indus valley via the ancient towns of Alchi and Likir. Taking a detour we will enjoy the clay forest eroded landscapes or Lamayuru before we will stop to photograph its stunning monastery which sits high on a rocky outcrop in a beautiful narrow valley. Travelling out of the valley the Photo La Pass (4090m) delineates the predominantly Buddhist people of eastern Ladakh from the mostly Sunni people of the Kargil district west of there.
Dating back to the 8th century, the Chamba Statue of Mulbekh is a giant figure of Maitreya that oversees travellers passing through to Kargil. It is now partially obscured by a temple at its base but the statue is a lovely stop for photography before we continue to Kargil.
Situated on the banks of the Suru River, a tributary of the Indus, Kargil is Ladakh’s second largest city after Leh. It is home to a predominantly Sunni muslim community and the city is laid out along the river around its central mosque. Culturally it is a nice introduction to the people who live at the head of the Zanskar in Padum, the last muslim community of the valley.
From Kargil our adventure begins with the spectacular drive in to the Zanskar. During the summer it may be possible to see Brown Bears on this drive and we should also keep a lookout for Marmots sunning themselves as the day progresses. Our first stop for the day will be at Rangdum Monastery near the tiny village of Julidok. This relatively new monastery is situation atop a small sugarloaf hill overlooking the Suru Valley and it provides an ideal place to take a break before crossing the incredible Pensi La (4400m) From the top of this amazing pass we will be able to see the spectacular Darang Durung glacier which feeds the Zanskar River via its tributary of Doda.
From the moment we leave Pensi La, the dramatic landscapes of the Zanskar unfold and we will start to see local Zanskari people herding their yaks across the valley’s summer pastures. Over the time we are travelling in the Zanskar we will meet locally nomadic yak herders and learn how they keep their yaks, milk them and make local yoghurt and cheese.
The tiny and stunningly beautiful town of Karsha is home to the oldest and most ornate monastery in the Zanskar, the Karsha Chamspaling. Built against a craggy hillside like a massive white fortress, the monastery of Karhsa dates back to 958AD and it features ancient rock carvings nearby. Today around a hundred monks call the Karsha Gompa home and they belong to the Gelugpa sect.
Karsha is also home to a tiny and friendly nunnery, the Dorje Zhong, which dates back to the 15th century. Here a small group of nuns reside, mostly living their days through the study of Buddhist philosophies and Tibetan language.
Beautiful Stongde monastery, the second most prominent monastery of the Zanskar, overlooks a patchwork of grain fields in a valley hemmed in by soaring Himalayan peaks.
Stopping at the Stongde Monastery, we will explore the cave where the founder of the monastery, the great Tibetan master ‘Mapa’ lived during the time the monastery was constructed in the 11th century.
Situated at the base of a jagged series of mountains, the pretty village of Zangla will be our next overnight stay. Before settling in to the evening, we will take a short visit to the nunnery of the village. Zangla’s Byangchub Choling nunnery is nestled in a mountainside at the end of the village road. A concrete courtyard surrounded by tall flowers is at the centre of the nunnery, which has an unusually large 500 year old prayer hall.
Before we leave the ancient town of Zangla, we will take a short walk through the village where we may see some of the village elders sitting and enjoying the morning sun while they spin their prayer wheels and murmur prayers. Our drive along the beautiful Tsarap Chu River which carves its way through the Lungnak Valley will take us to the incredible monastery of Bardan.
Built on a rocky outcrop overlooking the river, the Bardan Monastery was the first monastery of the Dugpa-Kargyud sect to be established in the Zanskar. It was built around the 17th century and it is home to a beautiful prayer hall with remarkably well-maintained murals.
Undoubtedly the highlight of the Wild Images Zanskar photography expedition will be our overnight stay in the phenomenal monastery of Phugtal. A literal high point of our tour, Phugtal Monastery has been carved in to an ancient limestone cliff, high in the mountains above the Tsarap Chu River.
Phugtal is the jewel in the crown of the Zanskar and it is one of the most remote monasteries in the world. Built in the 13th century (although some of its murals may date back 200 years before that), Phugtal is blessed to have a natural spring of water flowing through it. Crowning the hill above the spring is an ancient Cypress tree, which grows as a testimony to this sanctuary of water in a part of the Indian Himalaya which is way higher than the treeline of the mountains.
The temple paintings and thangkas in Phugtal are said to be identical in style with Alchi and the 10th century monastery of Tabo in Spiti.
Alongside the large monastery complex, lies a monastic school for students of the entire valley.
Leaving Phugtal the following day, we will travel back towards Padum, stopping at the beautiful monasteries of Zongkul and Sani on the way.
Hidden between the primordial folds of a rocky overhang, the Zongkul gompa is accessible by a walk up hand carved steps which lead to a well camouflaged monastery that overlooks a low lying area called Stod. It is believed to have been founded by the great saint Naropa, who meditated in one of the two caves around which the monastery is built. It is a Drukpa monastery and there is a footprint near the entrance of one cave, which is said to be of Naropa.
Zongkhul monastery was originally established around a thousand years ago and also contains some fresco paintings that are from the 17th century.
Lying around ten kilometres from the town of Padum, the beautiful Sani gompa belongs to the Drugpa sect. It is known to be the oldest in all of Zanskar and is perhaps the oldest in the entire Ladakh region.
The gompa is reputed to have been founded by Padmasambhava and the main temple in the monastery is dedicated to him. There is a large, ancient chorten adjoining the monastery known as Kanika chorten. It dates back to the 2nd century and it is widely thought to have been built by the emperor Kanishka. He was a powerful king who controlled most of North India, Afghanistan and Kashmir during that time. There are ten curious looking stones nearby and according to historians they are engraved with representations of deities in pre-Tibetan style. These give belief to the claim that Sani is the oldest Buddhist site in Ladakh.
The landscape surrounding Sani is lovely with plantations of poplar trees and the nearby village has fields of barley, potatoes and peas.
Ladakh’s dardic Brokpa, or Flower People, live in one of the few fertile valleys of this arid region inside Jammu and Kashmir. The Brokpas are completely different– physically, culturally, linguistically and socially – from the Tibeto-Burman inhabitants of most of Ladakh. For centuries, the Brokpas have been indulging in public kissing and wife-swapping without inhibitions. Their cultural exuberance is reflected in exquisite dresses and ornaments, including a floral headdress called Monthu Tho. Brokpa men wear a large woollen dress held at the waist over woollen trousers. The women don special woollen dresses and adorn themselves with shells, beads and silver jewellery. Goatskin capes complete their traditional dress. Both men and women wear unusual headdresses decorated with flowers, coins and seashells. According to popular belief, the Brokpas were part of the army of Alexander the Great and came to the region over two thousand years ago. Besides tourists, villages like Garkon, where our tour spends a night, also attract anthropologists and very small numbers of photographers. Aside from extremely small scale tourism their main source of income is through the sale of products from their well-tended vegetable gardens. The custom of marrying within the community has ensured the Brokpas have retained their distinctive high cheekbones, aquiline noses, fair complexions and pale eyes. It has, however, limited the population of Brokpas, and the community hardly numbers over 2000.
The historical Ladakhi town of Alchi is home to the region’s oldest and most intricate monasteries. It is also nestled in a narrow valley that is dotted with traditional hamlets and hill fortresses. Arriving in time for sunset, we will seek out a place to capture the last light over this stunning valley.
On the last morning of our Zanskar Photography expedition we will visit the tiny, yet beautiful Alchi monastery which dates back to 958AD.
Just a few kilometres from Alchi, located high on a ridge overlooking the village, Saspol Caves is a glimpse into what medieval Tibet must have been like.
Here there are a series of amazing rock-cut temples. Four of these caves are richly adorned with paintings of the Buddhist pantheon from 13th – 15th centuries, representing a fusion of Indian and Tibetan Buddhist art.
The walk up to these caves is quite steep but short. Once there you will be rewarded with incredible views of the valley at the entrance to the caves and some of the most intricate historical art in Ladakh.
Accommodation & Road Transport
Accommodation during our Zanskar photography tour is in comfortable guest houses, home stays and (in Leh) hotels. Road transport is by modern minibuses.
The walking during our Zanskar photography tour is mostly easy in the villages. The treks to Phugtal monastery and the caves at Saspol are strenuous and vary in distance from around 20 minutes at Saspol to a few hours in order to reach Phugtal.
The Zanskar Valley is relatively high altitude. You can expect day time temperatures of between 15C and 20C. At night, the temperatures may drop below zero.
For most photography of the people in Ladakh, a travel lens of around 24-105mm on a full frame DSLR or mirrorless body will be essential. A wide angle lens of around 16mm or smaller will be perfect for working with the people inside smaller rooms.
If you prefer to photograph people from a distance, then please consider bringing a larger zoom or telephoto lens. It is our experience that sometimes people can feel a bit intimidated by large cameras and lenses so you may wish to bring a smaller sized zoom lens like a 100-400mm which doesn’t appear as intimidating as a large fixed focal length telephoto lens. Such a lens can also be useful for any wildlife we encounter.
If you bring a good quality bridge camera instead of a DSLR or mirrorless it will be best if it has an optical zoom of 18-20x or more, combined with a reasonable wide-angle at the other end of the zoom range.
If you have a phone or tablet that can be used for photography, you may find these quite useful around people.
Similarly if you have a Polaroid camera like the Leica Sofort or an Instax Mini, these are wonderful to have on hand when you spend time with tribal people. If you decide to bring one of these, please bring lots of film with you as the photographs you produce will be quite popular!
Be sure to bring plenty of spare battery power. On a number of nights there will be no access to power.
If you would like to talk over suitable equipment, please contact our office. We will be happy to advise.
ZANSKAR PHOTOGRAPHY TOUR: PRICE INFORMATION
Wild Images Inclusions: Our prices include surface transportation, accommodations, meals and entrance fees.
Our tour prices also include all tipping, including tips for local guides, drivers, accommodations and local people who are willing to be photographed. The value of these inclusions on this Wild Images tour amounts to approximately $500.
Deposit: £440, $550, €490.
TO BOOK THIS TOUR: Click here (you will need the tour dates and deposit amount)
2021 (provisional): £3990, $4990, €4450 Leh/Leh.
Single Room Supplement: £240, $300, €260.
If you are travelling alone, the single supplement will not apply if you are willing to share a room and there is a room-mate of the same sex available.
This tour is priced in US Dollars. Amounts shown in other currencies are indicative.
Air Travel To & From The Tour: Our in-house IATA ticket agency will be pleased to arrange your air travel on request, or you may arrange this yourself if you prefer.
ZANSKAR PHOTOGRAPHY TOUR: ITINERARY
Zanskar Photography Tour: Day 1: Our Zanskar photography tour will begin with our arrival in to the capital of Ladakh, Leh. The rest of our day will be spent resting and acclimatising to the altitude of this beautiful part of the Himalayas. At dinner on our first night, we will have a briefing about the Zanskar expedition.
Zanskar Photography Tour: Day 2: On our first full day in Ladakh, we will have an easy sightseeing day around Leh, visiting the Thiksey Monastery, Shey Monastery, Leh Palace and Leh Old town for photography
Zanskar Photography Tour: Day 3: Today we will drive from Leh to the Ladakh’s second largest city of Kargil. Our journey will take around five to six hours and we will be making stops to photograph the monastery and moonland scenery of the Lamayuru area, the villages of Bodhkarbu and Wakha, and the giant statue of Maitreya Buddha at Mulbekh before we arrive in Kargil for the evening.
Zanskar Photography Tour: Day 4: This will be the day we enter the remote Zanskar Valley. Leaving Kargil we will drive over the spectacular Penzi La pass towards the village of Padum. Stopping to visit locally nomadic yak herders on the way, we may even see Brown bear on this road trip but if they are absent, we will also be keeping an eye out for other wildlife including Marmots. We will make a visit to the beautiful monastery of Rangdum before driving towards Padum where we will stay overnight.
Zanskar Photography Tour: Day 5: On this, our first full day exploring the Zanskar region, we will visit two of the valley’s most beautiful villages – Karsha and Zangla. En-route we will stop to explore the ancient monastery at Stongde. We will also visit the nunnery at Zangla. The charismatic streets of Zangla are perfect for street photography.
Zanskar Photography Tour: Day 6: After we leave Zangla we will travel up to the spectacular monastery of Bardun, located on a rocky outcrop overlooking the Zanskar valley. We will then drive along the Tsarap river through more beautiful Zanskari villages before we arrive at the trailhead of the walk to Phugtal Monastery, possibly the most remote monastery in the world. We will then pack up donkeys with our luggage and take a 2.5 hour trek to this stunning monastery where we will arrive in time for sunset.
Zanskar Photography Tour: Day 7: After puja and sunrise photography at Phugtal, we will pack up and depart for our vehicles and drive towards Padum.
Zanskar Photography Tour: Day 8: On the last full day in the Zanskar Valley, we will take a full day drive back to Rangdum, stopping for photography along the way.
Zanskar Photography Tour: Day 9: A full day of photography on the road between Rangdum and Kargil.
Zanskar Photography Tour: Day 10: Today we will drive to the beautiful region of the Dardic Brokpa people where we will spend an afternoon and morning doing photography with these stunning people at their village of Garkon.
Zanskar Photography Tour: Day 11: From Garkon we will drive to Alchi breaking at the eco village of Takmachik for lunch.
Zanskar Photography Tour: Day 12: Today we will drive from Alchi to Leh, stopping for photography at Saspol caves and the surrounding area.
Zanskar Photography Tour: Day 13: Our Zanskar photography tour will end after an early breakfast and departure for Leh airport.