New Roads in the Ancient Kingdom of Zanskar

Mary McIntyre  /  4 Min Read  /  Mountain Biking

Perched in the Himalaya and once accessible only by trail, India’s Zanskar region has remained largely free of Western influences for over 2,000 years. That could all change as a new highway brings a wave of instant globalization.

When walking the trails to monasteries like this one, in the Tsarap River Valley, travelers will likely first pass a “stupa,” a dome-shaped shrine that reminds visitors to start saying their prayers as they approach the upcoming house of worship. Custom says you must pass with the stupa and mani wall—a stone wall inscribed with prayers—to your right, which we made sure to observe on our way past. Riders: Carston Oliver, Eric Porter. Photo: Mary McIntyre

Snow-filled gusts buffeted the sides of the jeep, quickly covering the road ahead and adding a new layer of tension to the already perilous drive. The wipers ticked a steady rhythm across the windshield, a half-beat off Enrique Iglesias’s crooning from the radio. Our driver Jigmeth had been playing the pop singer’s hits since he picked us up in Leh, India, and began the 280-mile drive toward the starting point of our journey in the country’s northern mountains. It was September 22, day zero of our planned 16-day bikepacking trip, and after three hours on the road we were nearing the 17,480-foot Taglang La Pass. Our drop-off point was still several hours and two more high passes farther down the Manali-Leh Highway. We just needed to make it through the blizzard to get there.

Jigmeth likely had an idea of the widespread destruction the snowstorm would cause; the road closed a few hours later, leaving him trapped on the wrong side of the pass for five days until workers were able to clear it. We, however, brushed the storm aside as a mere inconvenience. I blame it on the naiveté of beginning a journey, but it should have been obvious considering our destination was one of the most inaccessible areas on earth: the former Buddhist kingdom of Zanskar.

Perched among the dizzying heights of the Tibetan Plateau, ensconced in glaciated, 23,000-plus-foot peaks, and sharing heavily patrolled borders with both China and Pakistan, most Zanskari villages have remained accessible exclusively via ancient trail networks, some requiring multiple days’ worth of walking. There is one road, a single-lane 4×4 track to the capital city of Padum, but it’s impassable seven months of the year due to snowfall. In the winter, the only way in or out is by foot along the partially frozen Zanskar River.

Yet, despite this extreme isolation, the Zanskari people have called the mountainous, high-altitude desert home for over 2,500 years—and, due to the inaccessibility, Zanskar’s unique culture has remained largely free of Western influences.

That’s all changing as the Indian military constructs the first year-round highway up the Zanskar River, providing access to almost every village. This instant globalization brings with it amenities like modern medicine, better access to education and upgraded infrastructure. It’s also a shock to the Zanskari culture, which, following the Chinese annexation of Tibet, is considered one the world’s last bastions of Tibetan Buddhism.

The clashing of new versus ancient is what brought Carston Oliver, Nichole Baker, Eric Porter and me to Zanskar, careening up a mountain pass in the middle of a blizzard. We wanted to see the new highway’s continuing impact on the region…and ride Zanskar’s ancient trails before they were abandoned in favor of faster, more reliable modes of travel.

Back in the jeep, a colorfully painted, prayer-flag-festooned concrete pillar marked the summit of the pass. We hopped out to take pictures in the blizzard, completely unaware that in a few days the same storm would force us off those trails, to seek refuge on the very highway we were trying to avoid.

New Roads in the Ancient Kingdom of Zanskar
Photo Gallery

We’d initially planned to reach our drop-off point just after noon, giving us time to do some riding, cover a few miles, and find a good camp spot. The snowstorm, however, added several hours to the drive, and we arrived just as it was getting dark. As the trail was nearly invisible under a few inches of snow, we ended up pitching camp on a 15-degree slope some 100 yards from the road. Over two feet of snow fell over the next 12 hours, covering the tents and forcing us to wake up every few hours to kick it off (lest they collapse while we were sleeping). That first night stretched into the next as we hunkered down to wait out the weather, thankful for even meager protection from the alpine storms raging outside. All photos: Mary McIntyre

New Roads in the Ancient Kingdom of Zanskar
Photo Gallery

The weather cleared around noon on the second day, at least enough to start riding…or so we thought. The dirt had turned to peanut butter-esque mud, and we struggled up steep, loose climbs and boulder-filled switchbacks down to the river, where we reveled in the long flat stretches through yellow-leaved willow trees. Those were short-lived, however; saturated scree slopes covered the trail at any ravine, and by the end of the day we’d traveled less than five miles, often moving less than 1 mph. Conditions didn’t change much the next day; just lots of mud and snow with very little progress. This was only exacerbated when we started a fire to dry our wet gear and ended up melting a pair of socks and shoelaces. Rider: Carston Oliver

New Roads in the Ancient Kingdom of Zanskar
Photo Gallery

The sixth day began with 11-degree temps, followed by a series of frighteningly exposed sections of trail. After passing through the abandoned village of Satok, we pedaled up onto a high plateau for a view of our next challenge: a double-saddled, 17,000-foot pass, five miles away. We’d already climbed two 14,000-foot passes the day before, and it became obvious that our margin of error for getting to our next food drop was dangerously slim. Rather than risk it, we decided to pull the plug and retrace our steps back to the road. It was bittersweet; knowing we were making a smart, safe choice, but that we were also throwing away all the months of planning and dreaming about Zanskar’s ancient trail network. Riders: Carston Oliver, Nichole Baker, Eric Porter

New Roads in the Ancient Kingdom of Zanskar
Photo Gallery

The return trip was less treacherous than our initial approach, especially where the snow had melted on southern-facing slopes, but we still had to hike our bikes back over the two 14,000-foot passes. The muddy trail slowed us enough that we had to camp along the way; it also captured a set of fresh wolf tracks imprinted in the snow. Despite our frustration, we were able to find a few sections of clear trail, little sections of pure bliss that we did not take for granted. We arrived at the highway early the next morning to find it still closed, forcing us to ride nearly 20 miles on pavement to the nearest town of Sarchu (although it was less of a town and more of a collection of semi-permanent sheet metal structures) where we found a “hotel” room for the night. Rider: Carston Oliver

New Roads in the Ancient Kingdom of Zanskar
Photo Gallery

Our hope was that Jigmeth could pick us up the next morning, but he had no interest in coming back; he’d just made it home after spending multiple days stuck on the wrong side of the snow-covered pass. Luckily, we were able to coordinate with another driver to pick us up despite the closed road and take us into Zanskar’s central valley, a three-day trip through military training camps and Muslim villages on the Pakistani border, under glaciated, 21,000-foot peaks, and over the main pass on the only (for now) road. Upon reaching the valley, we wasted no time trying to recoup what we could of our route, just in the opposite direction from what we initially planned. The footpaths above the Karsha Gompa monastery offered an incredible view of the valley’s many villages, so we hiked up for sunset—and finished with a fast, fun descent, just what we needed after three days of bumping up and down dusty roads in a packed jeep. Riders: Carston Oliver, Eric Porter

New Roads in the Ancient Kingdom of Zanskar
Photo Gallery

Split by the Zanskar River and spotted with towns and monasteries, Zanskar’s central valley is the region’s most populated area and the first to be connected to the outside world via a road to the capital city of Padum. We set off east of town, looking to explore the trails we would have been bikepacking if the weather had been kinder. It was a mixed blessing: being on bikes unburdened with heavy gear made for much more playful riding. Rider: Carston Oliver

New Roads in the Ancient Kingdom of Zanskar
Photo Gallery

With near-vertical cliff faces above and below, the only access to this 2,000-year-old Tibetan Buddhist monastery is via a trail passing through its central courtyard. The monks greeted us as we rode through, and Monk Tashi even helped by carrying my bike up the stairs behind Eric and Carston (after taking a quick test ride, that is). Though the monastery is still a two-day walk from the nearest road, it provided a glimpse into Zanskar’s battle between old and new: monks played Justin Bieber on their cell phones as others simultaneously blew into ancient Tibetan dungchen horns, their haunting wails summoning prayer; monks watched ski videos and Bollywood movies depicting life in far-off places between learning the same teachings that have been taught here for a thousand years, sitting in the same seats in the same stone-walled courtyard as their forebearers.

New Roads in the Ancient Kingdom of Zanskar
Photo Gallery

The Zanskar district’s trail system has been worn in over centuries, but some sections are less sturdy than others. Our original route followed the Tsarap River to its confluence with the Doda River (also known as the Stod River), the two of which form the Zanskar River. The region is famous for its woven wicker bridges, an art of necessity perfected over the past several thousand years. These days, many are riddled with holes and gaps but are still sturdy enough to support a bike—if you move quickly. Rider: Eric Porter

New Roads in the Ancient Kingdom of Zanskar
Photo Gallery

On one of the last nights of our trip, we were lucky enough to stay with the queen of Zangla—Zangla being the former capital of Zanskar, when it was still an independent kingdom. The queen is also married to the prince of Padum, the region’s current capital, bringing together both old and new royal blood under the same roof. Our original route followed the Zanskar River downstream from the queen’s village, and would have been the final leg of our bikepacking journey. Though we didn’t complete the traverse, the weather seemed to be apologizing; it was all dry trails and sunshine as we rode out the lower Zanskar valley toward Leh and our flight home. Riders: Carston Oliver, Nichole Baker

Photo Gallery

We’d initially planned to reach our drop-off point just after noon, giving us time to do some riding, cover a few miles, and find a good camp spot. The snowstorm, however, added several hours to the drive, and we arrived just as it was getting dark. As the trail was nearly invisible under a few inches of snow, we ended up pitching camp on a 15-degree slope some 100 yards from the road. Over two feet of snow fell over the next 12 hours, covering the tents and forcing us to wake up every few hours to kick it off (lest they collapse while we were sleeping). That first night stretched into the next as we hunkered down to wait out the weather, thankful for even meager protection from the alpine storms raging outside. All photos: Mary McIntyre

The weather cleared around noon on the second day, at least enough to start riding…or so we thought. The dirt had turned to peanut butter-esque mud, and we struggled up steep, loose climbs and boulder-filled switchbacks down to the river, where we reveled in the long flat stretches through yellow-leaved willow trees. Those were short-lived, however; saturated scree slopes covered the trail at any ravine, and by the end of the day we’d traveled less than five miles, often moving less than 1 mph. Conditions didn’t change much the next day; just lots of mud and snow with very little progress. This was only exacerbated when we started a fire to dry our wet gear and ended up melting a pair of socks and shoelaces. Rider: Carston Oliver

The sixth day began with 11-degree temps, followed by a series of frighteningly exposed sections of trail. After passing through the abandoned village of Satok, we pedaled up onto a high plateau for a view of our next challenge: a double-saddled, 17,000-foot pass, five miles away. We’d already climbed two 14,000-foot passes the day before, and it became obvious that our margin of error for getting to our next food drop was dangerously slim. Rather than risk it, we decided to pull the plug and retrace our steps back to the road. It was bittersweet; knowing we were making a smart, safe choice, but that we were also throwing away all the months of planning and dreaming about Zanskar’s ancient trail network. Riders: Carston Oliver, Nichole Baker, Eric Porter

The return trip was less treacherous than our initial approach, especially where the snow had melted on southern-facing slopes, but we still had to hike our bikes back over the two 14,000-foot passes. The muddy trail slowed us enough that we had to camp along the way; it also captured a set of fresh wolf tracks imprinted in the snow. Despite our frustration, we were able to find a few sections of clear trail, little sections of pure bliss that we did not take for granted. We arrived at the highway early the next morning to find it still closed, forcing us to ride nearly 20 miles on pavement to the nearest town of Sarchu (although it was less of a town and more of a collection of semi-permanent sheet metal structures) where we found a “hotel” room for the night. Rider: Carston Oliver

Our hope was that Jigmeth could pick us up the next morning, but he had no interest in coming back; he’d just made it home after spending multiple days stuck on the wrong side of the snow-covered pass. Luckily, we were able to coordinate with another driver to pick us up despite the closed road and take us into Zanskar’s central valley, a three-day trip through military training camps and Muslim villages on the Pakistani border, under glaciated, 21,000-foot peaks, and over the main pass on the only (for now) road. Upon reaching the valley, we wasted no time trying to recoup what we could of our route, just in the opposite direction from what we initially planned. The footpaths above the Karsha Gompa monastery offered an incredible view of the valley’s many villages, so we hiked up for sunset—and finished with a fast, fun descent, just what we needed after three days of bumping up and down dusty roads in a packed jeep. Riders: Carston Oliver, Eric Porter

Split by the Zanskar River and spotted with towns and monasteries, Zanskar’s central valley is the region’s most populated area and the first to be connected to the outside world via a road to the capital city of Padum. We set off east of town, looking to explore the trails we would have been bikepacking if the weather had been kinder. It was a mixed blessing: being on bikes unburdened with heavy gear made for much more playful riding. Rider: Carston Oliver

With near-vertical cliff faces above and below, the only access to this 2,000-year-old Tibetan Buddhist monastery is via a trail passing through its central courtyard. The monks greeted us as we rode through, and Monk Tashi even helped by carrying my bike up the stairs behind Eric and Carston (after taking a quick test ride, that is). Though the monastery is still a two-day walk from the nearest road, it provided a glimpse into Zanskar’s battle between old and new: monks played Justin Bieber on their cell phones as others simultaneously blew into ancient Tibetan dungchen horns, their haunting wails summoning prayer; monks watched ski videos and Bollywood movies depicting life in far-off places between learning the same teachings that have been taught here for a thousand years, sitting in the same seats in the same stone-walled courtyard as their forebearers.

The Zanskar district’s trail system has been worn in over centuries, but some sections are less sturdy than others. Our original route followed the Tsarap River to its confluence with the Doda River (also known as the Stod River), the two of which form the Zanskar River. The region is famous for its woven wicker bridges, an art of necessity perfected over the past several thousand years. These days, many are riddled with holes and gaps but are still sturdy enough to support a bike—if you move quickly. Rider: Eric Porter

On one of the last nights of our trip, we were lucky enough to stay with the queen of Zangla—Zangla being the former capital of Zanskar, when it was still an independent kingdom. The queen is also married to the prince of Padum, the region’s current capital, bringing together both old and new royal blood under the same roof. Our original route followed the Zanskar River downstream from the queen’s village, and would have been the final leg of our bikepacking journey. Though we didn’t complete the traverse, the weather seemed to be apologizing; it was all dry trails and sunshine as we rode out the lower Zanskar valley toward Leh and our flight home. Riders: Carston Oliver, Nichole Baker

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