Picture this: A golden SUV with a Bialetti Elektrica Moka pot balanced on its bonnet, bubbling with freshly percolated coffee. A gurgling stream, clean and cold Himalayan air with single-digit AQI, and no one around for miles. Snowcapped peaks crowded like courtiers around the solitary, 5,320m high Gumbo Rangan, a mountain that’s considered sacred to the Buddhists of Zanskar. This is literally the middle of nowhere.
My last trip to Ladakh was 17 years ago and during one of those last drives up to Leh from Manali, in 2004, I remember thinking how much the road had changed. When I first drove on it 22 years ago, it had sections of gravel that carried on for 30km at some places, raging water crossings, sand traps and narrow sections where it seemed the mountains had grudgingly relented to the construction of a motorable track. It was the epitome of an off-road adventure.
But then the road surface started getting better and better—by 2012, the road was already motorable for small cars. Water crossings were bridged, narrow sections were widened, and gravel was replaced by smooth black tarmac. Once the domain of capable 4x4 vehicles, even a small city car can do the drive from Manali to Leh today.
I remember thinking the adventurous aspect had been diluted. Then one day, just before the world shut down, my late friend, the 86-year-old Teddy Singh—the grand old man of the mountains who once led groups on treks from Manali to Chandra Tal—called me about a trip he had just returned from. “There is a new shortcut to Zanskar,” he declared, “but it is not for the faint of heart or the short of breath!” Meaning, fear and altitude were the nemesis on this route.
Until recently, the only motorable route from Manali to Padum, the capital of the Zanskar valley, was via Leh and Kargil—a distance of 870km. There is, however, another way. There’s a village called Darcha, 102km from Manali, on the Manali-Leh road. If you really zoom into the area on Google Maps, you will see a faint path going north. This is an old trail that crosses the Great Himalayan Range at Shinku La and enters the valley from the south at Kurgiakh, carrying on to Padum. The distance from Darcha to Padum on this route is just 135km. Add the 102km from Manali and you get a total distance of 237km.
This certainly qualified as a shortcut. But Google Maps still doesn’t recognise this road as motorable, it will direct you to drive to Padum via Kargil.
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Travelling after months of lockdown, however, I was determined to find unexplored roads. And this “shortcut” fit the bill. So in July last year I found myself at that junction in Darcha, in a Ford Endeavour loaded with three others and considerable luggage. I had a choice: Take the safe and smooth long road to Zanskar or turn off the tarmac on to the dirt trail and head up the “shortcut to Zanskar”.
The car was capable, my only worry was the weather. It had been raining incessantly for 18 hours and the raindrops were starting to turn into mushy snowflakes. It was a given that as we climbed higher, the rain would give way to snow. Apart from that, the man who ran the dhaba at Darcha had been less than enthusiastic when I asked him about the condition of the road. He had shrugged and said, “You can attempt it but there is no guarantee that you will succeed.”
The clouds were hanging low and my hope was that as we ascended towards Shinku La, we would outrun the rain and climb out of the clouds. I started up the road and soon, the smooth tarmac that had been my faithful companion all the way from Mumbai gave way to mud and gravel. The weather too was in no mood to relent, and sleeting rain soon turned into flurries of snow.
Crossing any Himalayan pass is not without risk, but during the ascent, this was compounded, as the relentless rain had turned mud into slush and rocks were coming loose. The ice forming on the road wasn’t exactly friction’s fast friend, so the tyres sometimes wrestled for grip. It would be correct to say that at times the python of fear started uncoiling in my stomach, for, as we climbed higher, the weather became wilder.
As we neared the 16,580ft-high pass, the road turned white with a thick layer of snow, bordered by glacial walls of ice. The car’s wipers had their work cut out brushing off the wads of snow that gathered on the glass every few seconds. The temperature gauge showed the outside temperature as minus 4 degrees Celsius. Visibility was low. Modern cars are quite capable, though, with the computronics on board constantly gauging outside conditions and recalibrating power delivery and traction. So, while the going was slow, we crested Shinku La without any problems. At the pass itself, when I stepped out to take in the scenery and savour the moment, my teeth chattered like castanets from the sudden cold after the toasty interiors of the car.
Descending from the pass, though, was another ball game. The Zanskar side of the pass has a steeper gradient, and by the time we started descending after all the photo brouhaha with the signboard at the pass, the snow on the ground had turned to slippery ice. In addition, there were a few tight hairpins which called for a three-point turn. Quite tricky when traction is not exactly on talking terms with the tyres.
But there was even more adventure in the offing. At the base of the pass, where the valley widens, the Lakhang Nala had swollen so much that it had washed away any semblance of a road and there were times when I had to wade into the water to gauge its depth and then take the car across. There were so many fast-flowing rivulets that I had to do this about eight times. At places the water level was above my waist—and bitterly cold.
Finally, we reached higher ground and arrived at Gumbo Rangan. It certainly wears an air of piety, standing aloof from the other mountains that ring it. And that evening, its crown was lost in clouds, giving it an even more ethereal appearance.
Here the valley was wide and on the grassy meadow next to the Kargiak Chu river, we pitched our tents and got the stove going to cook a simple dinner. During the course of the evening, the clouds peeled away to reveal the kind of star-studded sky that only places with minimal air pollution and zero light pollution can provide.
The next morning, I pulled back the flap of my tent and saw that the weather had turned even better, with deep-blue skies and no clouds. But there were still challenging roads ahead.
While the walking track from Darcha to Padum has existed for centuries, it has been made motorable by marginally widening it only recently. So it is still fragile, susceptible to rockfall and landslide. At times it is barely a ledge cut into the mountains, with a sheer drop on one side. To give you an idea of how raw this road is—it took us four hours to drive the 33km from our campsite, at the base of Gumbo Rangan, to Purne, the first major village. The road is fraught with rocks and sharp stones. At Purne, the Kargiak Chu joins the Tsarap Lingti Chu to form the Zanskar. At the only dhaba there, the owner reassured us that the worst was behind us and that the road would get better as we neared Padum, 56km away. Yet it took us five hours.
The dhaba owner also told us that plans were in place to improve the condition of the road we had just driven on from Shinku La. In fact, on the road to Padum, I could see that electricity poles had been erected and cables were being stretched between them. Soon, electricity would creep into this valley, followed by mobile networks and tarmac, and then the tourist hordes would arrive and boost the economy of the region.
Close to Purne is the Phuktal gompa, or monastery. Originally built inside a gigantic cave, it is today home to about a hundred monks and is still remote, accessible only by a three-hour trek from Purne.
As we headed into the dusk towards Padum, I knew that within a few years the crazy cliffhanger we had driven on today and the rough and raw road over Shinku La we had negotiated yesterday would both be tamed by tarmac, much like the Manali-Leh Road. That is why this “shortcut to Zanskar” road trip will always remain a cherished memory.
Padum itself is quite a sprawling and busy town. The road going north from it to Kargil, 231km away, is well defined and well maintained. However, there are shortcuts to be discovered here too.
So, geography lesson again.
Imagine roads in the shape of a “T”. Sonamarg in Kashmir is at the left end of the horizontal line and Leh at the right end. Padum is at the bottom end of the vertical line and Kargil is situated where the vertical line meets the horizontal line. The conventional and mostly tarmac route to Leh is to drive up the vertical line and then turn right at Kargil. However, a new road has been cut through the mountains, through two high-altitude passes. This road goes at a diagonal from Padum and joins the road from Leh to Kargil at Khalsi, 95km from Leh to the east and 121km from Kargil to the west. So instead of driving two sides of a triangle you drive one—a shorter distance.
I was really itching to take this road but my car was showing me an exhaust system error and I didn’t want to take a chance. So we took the conventional route to Kargil. This shortcut would have to wait.
Fortunately for me, though, that day came way sooner than expected. Barely a month later, I was invited on a motorcycle trip from Leh to Padum and back—the planned route was from Leh to Padum via Kargil and then back to Leh via the shortcut and Khalsi.
In October, I was back in the region, at Zangla, a little village 31km away from Padum, known for its medieval-era fort. It was considerably colder but my excitement knew no bounds because the experience of driving these newly cut dirt trails would be even headier on a motorcycle.
In an effort to boost the local economy, many inhabitants of Zangla have started operating home-stays. I was staying at the home of the only teacher in Zangla, whose charming wife made a super chai laced with spices that washed away the tiredness of my ride from Leh.
The home-stays themselves are basic but clean and tidy, with dry toilets. These consist of a deep hole in the ground, with a pile of mud around it and a shovel. So after squatting, Indian style, and doing your bit, you need to shovel some mud over your stuff.
The temperature was hovering at about 7 degrees Celsius when I started off from Zangla and headed into the mountains. The relatively new road cutting through the mountains was as yet bucolic, with the soothing sound of the ice blue river gurgling alongside, and sometimes across, the road.
The latter made for exciting water crossings. These are always hit-and-miss affairs on a motorcycle because underlying rocks can cause you to lose balance and get your feet wet, or, worse still, fall into the water. Luckily I aced them all, with only my shoes getting wet. But what really blew my mind was the picturesqueness of the route. Not only did the river add a flash of blue to the brown, but the mountainsides also displayed colour gradations, often changing their tone depending on the angle and strength of the sun.
The first pass on this route was the 16,590ft-high Singhe La and the gradient was far steeper than Shinku La’s. The entire climb up was loose gravel and mud and riding, not driving, I had my work cut out on the hairpins to maintain momentum and not lose torque or balance. This became increasingly difficult as I approached the pass, as the bends began to turn into the spirals of a corkscrew with high angles of incline. Finally, Singhe La, with its fluttering flags, came into view. From there, the descent was easier.
The climb up to the second pass, Sirsir La, at 15,700ft, was easier, but it is on the descent that the scenery went into full drama mode. The dirt track ran through tall canyons and gorges, with the hue of the rocks changing with the strength of the sun and the translucence of the clouds. This was countryside straight out of that iconic Hollywood western Mackenna’s Gold, starring Gregory Peck and Omar Sharif. And just as the horses thundered through tall canyons kicking up dust in the film, so too did our motorcycles leave behind clouds of dust.
Those last 20km or so were spectacular in terms of scenery and even though the road was unsealed, the surface was relatively smooth, and for the first time in days I did not have to keep my eyes glued to the road. That dirt road actually felt therapeutic. So much so that I was a bit disappointed when the dirt track met the smooth tarmac of the Kargil-Leh road at Khalsi.
Looking back, it was probably divine intervention that the exhaust error on my car showed up at Padum. For, riding the shortcut from Padum to Khalsi was certainly a far more exciting, headier experience than driving it would have been.
Rishad Saam Mehta is a travel writer and photographer.