We found Zanskar full of beauty – landscapes (with its glaciers and snowed peaks), people – always smiling, living their lives as their ancestors and the monasteries blended with the mountains made our journey special. To get there was not easy, and we did not want to take the same road that we got in, so we decided to take an uneasy way out. Our next destination after Ladakh was Manali, a lazy tourist town south of the Rotang Pass. To get there the standard way, we would have to go back to Kargil, then to Leh and all the way back down the Leh-Manali Highway (mostly unpaved, full of very high passes), all together more than a 1000 kilometres. The alternative route was a trail leading from Padum to the village of Darcha (on the Leh-Manali highway, 30 kilometres north from Keylong), travelled by local people and groups of trekking tourists. The trail is used by the horses and in some parts it is very narrow, as the area is prone to landslides. We knew from some other cyclists, that it is virtually impossible to cycle there (maybe 10% if you are lightly loaded and have a good bike) and that most of them put their bicycles and bags on horses. Since we wanted to be fully independent (as always) we decided to enter the trail and push our bikes till we could cycle again.

We use two Arc’teryx Arrakis 40 backpacks as panniers for everyday cycling, but when needed, we can convert them back into their original state and use them as proper, watertight backpacks. On the trail, both of us carried a backpack and we had one pannier each on the bike plus some extra stuff here and there.Pushing the bike on the trail

Steep trail - Padum to Darcha

Horse highway - Zanskar

Horses at work - Zanskar

Horse trekking Zanskar

Some sections of the trail run along very steep slopes, that go all the way down to the Tsarap river and the trail itself is maybe 20 to 30 centimetres wide. Even pushing a bicycle along that trail – especially uphill – is a difficult and risky job.

Bad path from Padum to Darcha

At the beginning of the trail the “infrastructure” was in a pretty good condition (meaning: it existed), we could cross streams not getting wet.

Carrying the bike over the bridge

Path too narrow to cycle it

What you see on your left is the trail, on the other side of the river is a nice road (still under construction) and unfortunately with no bridge to connect both riversides.

Trek from Padum to Darcha

Most of the bridges were pretty simple constructions, while the others looked like from a fantasy movie.

Zanskar bridge Hobbit

Zanskar trail

Most of the time we had to push…

Very narrow path - Zanskar

…but there were rare moments, when we could enjoy cycling again!

From Padum to Darcha by bike

Padum Darcha trek

We arrived to the village of Purne after 3 days on the trail, left our bikes and tent there, and went for a short hike to the Phuktal Monastery –  marvellous old buildings glued to a steep cliff.

Going to Phuktal

Purne to Phuktal trek

There was a perfect section of a trail leading there, unfortunately our bikes where not with us.

Trek to Phuktal

Phuktal village in the mountains

Phuktal architecture

Village of Phuktal

Part of this 800 year old monastery was built into a cave!

Phuktal buildings

Phuktal Monastery

Small door - Phuktal

We were lucky to be there at the time of lunch – all monks and students from the school gathered to have rice and dal and we could sit with them and simply watch.

Little monks of Phuktal

Bird - Phuktal

Monk in Phuktal

In Phuktal

The structure is really impressive – everything seemed to be perfectly composed into the surrounding mountains.

Monastery in Phuktal

Phuktal houses

Phuktal village

After Purne we continued pushing up the river until we entered a plain with several small villages where we could cycle a bit.

Narrow stone bridge

Stone bridge - Zanskar

Zanskar stupas

Stupas in Zanskar

We passed through many tiny settlements, where everything looked like from an open air museum! The way people live there have not changed for centuries! There were never any cars there, nor electricity. The only way to get there is to drive 10 hours from the main road to Padum, then 2 hours more to get to the trail and then 2 days by horse!

Houses in Zanskar

Zanskar village

Most of the locals were harvesting barley at that time (the whole plant including roots is harvested) so our interactions with the locals were narrowed to glamorous old ladies.

Zanskar old lady

Zanskar old lady - portrait

Zanskar landscape

Narrow Zanskar trail

Yaks in Zanskar

We are amazed by the fact, that all the pastures around the villages belong to some people and whenever we camped wild there was a person coming to us in the morning to charge us.

Check post - Kargyak

Would you cross?

Zanskar stone bridge

Stupas - Zanskar

Three stupas - Zanskar

…to be continued in the second part.