Ladakh’s Incredible Hidden and Zanskar Valleys

Our time in the Hidden and Zanskar Valleys in Ladakh involved crossing steep mountain passes, rafting on wild rivers and seeing pre-Tibetan architecture. These valleys are less visited than other parts of Ladakh and we’re glad we included them in our visit. 

The Zanskar River is a wild, fast-moving river that cuts through a deep, colourful canyon. It’s the perfect place for whitewater rafting. There were a few 3rd and 4th class rapids that had us desperately hanging on with our feet while paddling madly through rapids. The best part of this trip, however, was the scenery. The incredible colours and rock features of the Zanskar Canyon are breathtaking. The trip was 28km of paddling over 3 hours, so we were able to see a lot of this beautiful area. We wore full wet-suits for the trip and while we were standing in the hot Indian sun waiting to begin, we wondered why.  After 2 hours of paddling though, our hands and feet were so cold they were cramping from the cold water of the glacier fed river.

We started the rafting trip from the town of Chiling. After a few days we returned to this village to begin a 3-day trek in the Hidden Valleys. Chiling is a cute village in a fertile oasis along the Zanskar River. Most villagers have gardens and small farms. There were many fruit bearing apricot trees which we took full advantage of and over-indulged. We stayed overnight in a historic home stay that also had a museum. Residents of Chiling are originally from Nepal. They were brought to Ladakh generations ago to make metal bowls and pots for the king and many continue this trade today. The museum had many examples of the old tools that were once used, but they are not dissimilar from what they still use today. They also had many of their pots on display.

The trek was difficult as it took us up high passes and then to small villages far down in the valleys below. The climb to the first pass, Dung Dung La (4710), was an arduous 1270m elevation gain. We slowly started to see more colourful and rugged mountains of the Ladakh and Zanskar Ranges the higher we got. The final approach to the pass is a gorgeous, long red ridge. The views from the pass though were stunning as we had could see the Stok, Ladakh and Zanskar Ranges. The scenery after the pass was equally stunning. On one side were the jagged towers of the Zanskar Range that reminded us of mountains in Patagonia. On the other side were the colourful red, green and purple arid mountain of the Ladakh Range. There were rocks the colour of Robin’s eggs on the ground as we walked down from the pass.

It started to rain as we got close to our first village, Sumdo Chinmu. The ground does not retain any of the rainfall and instead the water runs over the ground toward the rivers. From our home-stay we could see a waterfall develop from a dry gully to a full waterfall in just an hour.

Luckily, the next morning the rain stopped so we could comfortably continue the trek. Most of our day was in the clouds but they often made the rugged Zanskar mountains look even more dramatic. We had another long hike up to the high pass of Konzke La (4900m) but the views were marred by the clouds.

After the pass we traveled down the Ripchar Tokpo River Valley where we saw colourful mani walls made from rocks from the brightly coloured mountains above. We spent the night in the picture-perfect cliff side village of Hinju where most of the flat-topped, white-washed homes are built into the side of the cliff. We stayed in one of the homes at the top of this town and enjoyed a lovely view from our room.

The final day of our trek took us down the Hinju Valley to the village of Wanla with its 14th century fortress ruin on a crumbling cliff above town. Also on the hill is an 11th century Gompa which looks down on the village of Wanla below.

After Wanla we trekked through a narrow, dry gorge with steep, tall, cliffs on each side. It was a meandering gorge with only occasional glimpses of the high peaks above. The gorge brought us to Prinkti La (3710m) where we had great views of the Markha Valley and Zanskar’s jagged peaks behind us. On the other side of the pass are the arid mountains of the Ladakh Range. For details on the trek click here.

The trail leads to the picturesque village of Lamayuru.  Old Town Lamayuru is filled with old, flat-roofed, compressed-mud homes on either side of narrow alleys. There are many old chortens in old town, some in bright colours. Above these chortens is an ancient, pre-Tibetan gompa with its large, main audience hall and many small monastery buildings surrounding it. It’s perched on a narrow, crumbling, ridge above town. The Gompa is from the 10th century and the lamas follow a sect of Buddhism that is older than Tibetan Buddhism. We saw a group of lamas with long hair, wrapped in buns on the tops of their heads. Apparently, they meditate at the gompa for 3 or more years and let their hair grow the whole time.

East of Lamayuru are the villages of Alchi, Basgo and Likir each with a pre-Tibetan gompa. Alchi has the oldest shrine in Ladakh from the early 10th century. Inside Alchi’s well preserved Sumrtsek Temple, are original paintings of Buddha on the walls and intricate wood carvings on the doorways. As well, there are original massive wooden carvings of Buddha and Future Buddha in two of the temples.

On an eroding hillock above Basgo are the incredible remains of the 15th century Gompa and castle. The ruins of the citadel wall, castle and gompa with 2 temples are all that remains of its time as Ladakh’s capital. The temples have original fresco paintings and large clay Buddha sculptures. Below the monastery are a few homes that look like they’re from the same era as the gompa.

In Likir, the 11th century Gompa is a small but impressive collection of buildings in remarkably good shape.  As with many gompas, the buildings are grouped together on a hill above green barley and buckwheat fields. There’s a huge, shiny golden statue of Future Buddha beside this ancient structure. The contrast between the two is quite dramatic.

In southern Ladakh is the isolated region of Zanskar. We had a harrowing 14 hour, 230km bumpy, dusty jeep ride to reach the small town of Padum. The drive took us over several high mountain passes where we had great views of the mountains including Nun Kun Massif 7,135 m and the 23km long Drang-Drung Glacier. This glacier is the start of the Zanskar River.

The Muslim and Buddhist town of Padum is set in the wide valley at the confluence of the Zanskar and Tsarap Rivers. There are many ancient Buddhist Gompas and artifacts in this region. We found a rarely visited but very interesting 8th century carving of Buddha in 5 different poses on a large boulder just outside of Old Town.

On the other side of the valley is Karsha Gompa. It was built in the 10th century and has a remarkable setting with many whitewashed buildings high up on the red rock above the small town. The lamas in the Zanskar region have different hats than we’ve seen before. They wear tall, pointed fleece hats with turned up sides. The lamas wear them often, not just for traditional prayers as in other places.

South of Padum is one of the most impressive Gompas in Ladakh. We had a 2-hour rough jeep ride, followed by a 2-hour hike to reach to incredible site of the 12th century Phuktal Gompa. On the hike we passed the small community of Cha with their many chortens. Above Cha we saw the confluence of the blue Tsarap River with the muddy Kargiakh River. The trek took us though ragged, red cliffs along the Tsarap River.

Phuktal Gompa’s main red topped temple is built into a cave which was used for meditation and teaching as much as 2500 years ago. The rest of the monastery buildings are all precariously hanging on the limestone cliffs below. It is a very impressive site. We went to a puja (monk chanting ceremony) where we were entertained by seven-year old novice monks who were fooling around like most little boys would. A few spoke English and were happy to practice on us. As with all monks, they don’t have many material items. The novices were playing with broken toys and all their socks had more holes than sock, but they seemed to be enjoying themselves. It was one of the most haphazard pujas we’ve been to, but seeing the boys have fun was worth it. For details on the trek click here.

On the trek back to the jeeps we took an alternate route. We had to cross the Tsarap River on one of the ricketiest suspension bridges we’d seen, until we got to the second one which was even worse. They were made from twigs that were woven together. It was like stepping on a poorly made wicker basket, high above a fast-moving river. Thankfully we made it across and were able to catch a ride back to town.

Coming up next: Ladakh’s Monasteries, Palaces and Fortresses

For extra pics from this trip go to Gallery/Northern India. For extra pictures from other blogs go to Gallery at

To read about more of our adventures go to Destinations.

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