You might have heard a lot of seasoned lovers of Ladakh complain that the earlier beauty of the region and the challenging factor has been diluted. The primary reason quoted, of course, is the travel plans of MANY including Ladakh as a “tourist destination”. Of course, better connectivity, easier roads, and many amenities along the way have made it easier for throngs of tourists to travel.
However, our beloved BRO never disappoints. A brand new route connecting Manali to Leh via Zanskar has been constructed and most of the route is near completion or ready state. Some patches might not be developed. And, somewhere the road barely exists, if at all. However, that is the real charm of Ladakh road diaries and this route DOES NOT DISAPPOINT.
If you’re looking for sheer isolation and stunning beauty synonymous with Ladakh, then I urge you to explore this wonderfully beautiful route. Yes, the journey is long. Yes, it will take you through many tough patches. But, will it be worth it? Absolutely, without a doubt!
Let's quickly dive into the details:
About the New Route via Zanskar
After nearly 3 decades of planning and execution, the road is finally near completion. So much so, that seasoned off-roaders can head on out. With only two critical roads of Srinagar-Leh and Manali-Leh Highways, it was a critical need of the region to create alternate access to Ladakh. Especially given the Kargil conflict of 1999, and the recently rising tensions from both China and Pakistan in the region, from an army movement perspective.
Add to that, the Manali-Leh route is still considered long and with five high-altitude mountain passes, it is closed for several months every year. Thus, this enviable road of the 297-km length extending from Nimmu-Padum-Darcha road has many benefits. These include reducing the commute time to directly reach Kargil from Manali to only 522 Kms from the current nearly 700 Kms.
Detailed description of the road journey
Let’s begin by covering the entire journey and how it will pan out for you. In the upcoming sections, I will pen down the detailed distances between key points, things you need to keep in mind, and the overall day plan for your easy reference!
Old Route portion of Manali Leh Highway: Manali – Darcha
Those familiar with the Manali Leh highway will have no trouble deciphering this route. This journey follows the regular route, albeit, with the new addition of the Atal Tunnel, saving us precious time and ensuring easy access to the journey ahead
The moment you enter the Lahaul Valley, right after the end of the 10 KM stretch of Atal tunnel, you are transported into a new world with new vistas. You will not be disappointed and each turn, each angle is pretty beyond belief.
I have covered detailed places worth exploring along the Sissu, Tandi, Keylong stretch. One thing to keep in mind here is the importance of Tandi. Tandi is the last stop on the Manali – Leh highway with a petrol pump. So ensure you fill up your tanks (and carry fuel with you, if on a motorcycle) for the remainder of the journey ahead. However, you’ll have access to one more petrol pump when you move from the Zanskar side (at Padum, will discuss below!).
The last familiar stop on the conventional Manali – Leh highway, from where our path starts differing in Darcha. A new road has been constructed and there is a signboard put up here, pointing towards Shinkula pass. This is the route we will now take and explore unchartered territories (literally and figuratively).
New Route, entering Zanskar: Darcha – Shinkula – Padum
The route can be properly divided as below –
Okay, so now we earnestly begin new journeys, on almost virgin roads, with no one around for as far as the eye can see. And, beyond! Deep in the tribal districts of Lahaul Valley, you’ll be engulfed with a sense of awe and a crystal clear reality of being oh-so-insignificant. Today’s route involved you crossing the high altitude pass of Shinkula – which clocks in at a staggering 16580 ft. This is higher than Baralacha la, Lachalung la et al. So, brace yourself for some tough conditions.
Shinku-la (singoo-la, shingu-la)
The road from Darcha towards Zanskar Sumdo is pretty well laid initially, then you’ll come across a path of off-roading up to Shinkula of about 25 Kms. Road construction is underway and will be properly laid in the coming seasons. Shinkula is the gateway into Zanskar valley with small-time river crossings. Nothing too tough, though.
At least till the back-breaking climb to the pass begins. You’ll be immersed in the old-school Ladakhi road journey experience in no time. And, that, truly, is the beauty of this new route. The mountains are barren and the river crossings are aplenty. The journey towards the top accompanies you with the most cobalt of skies. The lack of oxygen can be felt, especially towards the top.
Once you get to the top of the pass, you’ll have a visual of the route you’ve followed up top. That feeling of accomplishment is quite beautiful and an immediate pat on the back. It truly gives you a lot of courage for the journey up ahead, especially when you’ve covered a tricky part of the journey upfront. This pass is a bit different from others, in the sense that the topmost portion of the road is quite long and you’ll be quite a bit of a height for quite some time.
Right after you descend from Shinkula, the majority of your route will now move next to the Zanskar river. Also, remember the route is still fairly new and patchy in places and you’ll come across multiple river crossings. The views, however, will leave you breathless (and only partially because of lack of oxygen!). You’ll spot yaks, meadows, stunning peaks, and some of the most surreal moments of your life.
Before you reach Kargaik, you’ll spot the most beautiful mountain – known as the Gombo Ranjan. Standing tall and barren – this will be YOUR ABSOLUTE FAVORITE mountain in the whole world. One of the most revered and sacred mountains for the Zanskari folk, it stands alone and mighty. With snow-covered mountains as its backdrop, the river flowing through a meadow nearby, you’ll be hard-pressed to find a more heavenly place in the world.
Now, after spending a lot of time here, as it is hard to pull back and drive up ahead – you reach the tiny hamlet of Kargiak. Kargiak is the first village of Zanskar and is inhabited along the Kargyak River. You can stay up here in a homestay as well if you’re later in your travel plans. Another way to stay the night here, is, of course, camping by the river. Though, keep in mind, when camping- ensure you have decent cover nearby.
I urge you, however, to go up ahead of the route and have your first night in Zanskar in Purne. There’s a beautiful Himalayan homestay in the village, with the most beautiful loving family – that can be your home for the day.
The drive towards Purne will provide you with unbelievable views. It is pretty much like a picture being painted right in front of you. The view keeps evolving and everywhere you look, you’ll realize the beauty of barrenness like never before. Many small villages, multiples of stupas are there to bring you to reality. One particular mountain is standing like a natural wall, a fortress even, with shades and colors to keep you enthralled.
Also, if you check out the brief itinerary, I suggest you stay the next day in this village itself. The reason for this is because of the most surreal monastery, only an 8 KM hike away from here. Phugtal Gompa is unlike any experience. The village itself is stunning and you will love the views. The river flows thick here and the folk is kind. The lack of any materialistic comfort is not an adherent to their capabilities of kindness. The village has some surrounding greens which are a perfect contrast to the barren mountains.
The trek is lovely and scenic and sufficiently challenging. The river keeps you company but the mountain is a tough beast to conquer. You’ll cross a bridge to get to the other side of the river and once you reach the monastery with – you’ll be in shock. Cut upright with the mountain itself – words can’t describe its beauty. This is a not-to-be-missed place and you’ll happily have to add another day to your trip to see this wonder, where the monastery seems like it is a part of the mountain itself, having always existed so long as the Himalayas have been around.
The next day, you move on to the key point from where you’ll have an option. Purne is a big settlement town with a market, restaurants and TWO (YES TWO) petrol pumps nearby. Purne can pretty much compete with Leh if you ask me. This is a tourist spot, waiting to be discovered. The views are ethereal, the huge patches of plain land with green sprinkled around, the mountains in the background, all barren and pretty – this city is stunning!
From Purne to Padum will take you about 3 hours. Some places are dangerous; some are just awesome. The three-hour journey will take you through many villages, and your driving time for today is only to reach Padum. I suggest you explore some places to your heart’s desire. Along the way, one of the most stunning villages is the Icchar Village, which seems like a monastery in itself. The village has a very castle feel and even is home to a statue of Maitreya Buddha.
While driving through Zanskar, you’ll come across many of these tiny hamlets, Gompas, stupas, and monasteries – the valley has a different, unique feel to it. Being isolated and truly just with your group/self – reaching Padum is a kick to the senses. Padum is a big town with a sizeable Muslim population. Because of this, you’ll learn that shops are closed during Namaz. I, personally, love experiencing this amalgamation of cultures and how everyone co-exists with respect. Simply poetry to witness!
Spend the night in this beautiful town and explore the civilization of Zanskar here! Chinese or Tibetan food is a must and OF COURSE, explore the typical Zanskari food. Other things to explore nearby include a beautiful waterfall near the Sheela Village. Waterfalls are not synonymous with the region for some reason and this particular one will leave you having a GREAT time. A memory waiting to happen.
Two Alternatives from Padum, Zanskar
This is where you get to make a choice and choose your route up ahead. There are two ways you can go from Padum. One route will take you deep through Zanskar in Suru Valley and then the other will take you through Lingshed and a couple of passes. The journey distance is mentioned in the distance chart.
Remember there are two petrol pumps right after Padum on both routes. Remember to fill up and carry fuel. After this, your major fuel source will be in bigger cities only.
Zanskar Route Via Kargil
This route is expected to be an all-weather route. The overall journey is as below.
You will know of Rangdum if you’ve read my blog on Suru Valley. The roads are well laid for quite a huge portion. Since the overall distance to reach Kargil from this route is about 260+ Kms, I would highly recommend breaking your trip into two portions and having a night stay at Rangdum. The journey is beautiful and the views are spectacular. The river will keep you company for the most part and the snow-covered mountains act as the cherry on top.
Many little villages are sprinkled across the route as well. Also, there is a check post Enroute to Rangdum, where they’ll be noting your details – several passengers, car number, where to/from, etc.– as is common in the region. This helps them keep track of your whereabouts and trace you, in case needed. What’s stunning about today’s route is that you’re presented with multiple opportunities to cross bridges, and experience beautiful new vistas! Nothing disappoints, not in Zanskar.
Situated at an elevation of 11,998 ft., the isolated location tucked deep in the Suru Valley is a little place called Rangdum. Located midway between Kargil and Padum, the area is about 100 KMs from Kargil. The difficulties on the road are more than made up by the views here. There is a JKTDC bungalow here, where you can easily stay and make the most of your time in this stunning wonder!
Reach Kargil the next day. I have covered the Rangdum to Kargil part extensively. However, just to give you a brief, the road will mostly keep you company with Suru River – a tributary of Indus River, fed by the Panzella glacier. The road towards Kargil from Rangdum is decent, but I truly say this – that every corner of Suru Valley is worthy of exploring. So, I write this “getting to a destination” post with a heavy heart.
Stay overnight at Kargil and make your way to Leh, as per the Srinagar – Kargil – Leh route.
Zanskar Vaaley Via Lingshed
The route from this alternative is as below –
This is the more adventurous of journeys if you ask me. There is a lot to see here, a lot to cover. The road is newly built and breathtaking, to say the least. This section of the journey is known as the “untraceable” road, and for good reason. Immediately after taking a right from Padum towards Zangla, lies a petrol pump about 4 KMs down. Zangla’s distance from Padum is about 40 KMs and the road is well made. Post that, you’ll be on some off-roading journey towards Lingshed and up ahead. Signature views, synonymous with the Zanskar valley keep you company for the day.
After Zangla village, you’ll have to again cross a checkpoint where all your details will be recorded. During covid times, they’re checking your covid reports. The height keeps increasing after Zangla. Three passes await you today – Murgunla, Singela, and Sirsila. These are not as tough, except Sirsila which is at a mighty elevation. The journey is so remote you’ll not see the journey on google maps. The journey will be back-breaking and tough. The valleys will also start wrapping you up, starkly different than the Rangdum route, especially. The mountains are squeezing in with each other – adding to the intimidation. The views, however, will give you an out-of-body experience.
While the journey in KMs doesn’t sound too long – the roads are quite difficult and it is advisable to stay in Zangla for the night. This will also allow you to explore Zangla village where there is a beautiful monastery. There is a tiny guesthouse below the monastery that will make for a great home for the night.
This day will require you to travel about 260 KMs +. However, this journey can be broken down too and you can plan on having a night stop at Khaltse. When you leave from Zangla towards Lingshed, the journey will take you through several loops, almost similar to the gata Loops. The roads are non-existent and you’ll be off-roading very near the hills, accompanied by the river. From Lingshed, you’ll need to take the route that goes up (not down towards the village) and then you’ll reach the Singela pass. But, wait, right after Lingshed you’ll come across multiple tents pitched where you can get yourself some much-needed food.
This route ahead will take you through small settlements of Fotoksar and then a mighty pass of Sirsila. From here, you’ll reach Hanupatta after which – God will grace you with the most beautiful, and well-deserved tarmac road towards Wanla (which is a village, not a pass!). Take a right on the highway towards Khaltse, from where Leh is about 80 km away. I urge you to stay at Khaltse because the journey has been tough.
Explore the region of Ladakh to the earnest and your heart’s desire! I hope this was helpful
Distance Chart on the New Manali – Leh route, via Zanskar
Manali to Gemur 86 KMs
Gemur to Purne 105 KMs
Purne to Padum 55 Kms
Padum to Rangdum 106 KMs
Rangdum to Kargil 130 KMs
Kargil to Leh 217 Kms
Padum to Zangla 30 KMs
Zangla to Leh 260 Kms
1 Day – Manali to Gemur
2 Day – Gemur to Kargaik
3 Day – Kargaik to Purne
4 Day – Purne (explore)
5 Day – Purne to Rangdum
6 Day – Rangdum to Kargil
7 Day Kargil to Leh
5 Day Purne to Zangla
6 Day Zangla to Khaltse
7 Day Khaltse to Leh
Important things to know
- Petrol – Tandi, 2 near Padum (6 Kms towards Rangdum or 4 KMs towards Zangla). This is one of the most important things to keep available. Fill up to the fullest and carry some fuel with you, as per the needs of your car.
- Homestays – INR 1000 per person, including two meals
- Camping is allowed in many spots near key towns
- Only BSNL postpaid works, and that too in very few places. Padum is a good bet to get connectivity. Heck, there’s even a cyber café in the village.
- AMS is a real thing and you must acclimatize properly before starting the journey. Speak with your doctor for any medication you must have, or any precautions you should take.
- Wear proper clothes, dress in layers. Temperatures in the summer time might be in the early 10’s but with the sun right above you, it can definitely feel scorching. Also, temperatures can change super quickly, so keep that in mind.
- Also, sunscreen, eye wear is a must.
- Keep an eye out for river crossings. These can be tough. So, it is advisable to start your travels early in the day. As the sun rises, the water flow can become intense.
- There are multiple check-points – near Padum, Zanskar, Rangdum. Keep your documents ready. If travelling when COVID –ve are required – then keep that in mind, too.
- Be kind to the people, to nature. Don’t pollute, don’t dirty the place. Pick up after yourself and leave the place as how you got it when you got there.
This up-and-coming, brand new route is stunning, beautiful, something words can’t describe. For folks that love Ladakh for its isolation and sheer in-your-face intimidation from the hills surrounding you, this new route is a total beast! As someone who’s explored brand new roads in the region, let me tell you, your amazement at the sheer grit of BRO will be sky-rocketing.
Overall this route has taken the army and BRO around a decade to construct. Yes, this is an absolute boon to the tiny hamlets and settlements of the region. So, I urge you to be kind to the people and the nature surrounding you. Be helpful to anyone you might see on the road (though that number will be limited!).
This route is tough, it will test your patience, your skills and challenge you in every way possible. Remember to show respect to nature and treat it kindly. Don’t rush when you see a strip of tarmac road, though I do understand that temptation well. Just be patient, enjoy the route, the barrenness, and all that Zanskar has to offer.
Good luck, and do share LOTS of pictures with me please, when you do visit! Looking forward to hearing about your journeys, dear travelers!