Ladakh and Zanskar - The Road Less Traveled

A few words about Hemis Shukpachan. There was something about this quaint village that was really attractive which I’m unable to express. For those looking for a good homestay near Leh, it provides an ideal setting. Traditional Ladakhi houses, small nallahs everywhere, pretty flowers, and cute kids can be found in all villages in this region, and Hemis Shukpachan was no different.

However, it had that extra something that I’m unable to put my finger on. The road that leads to the highway goes through the village and is an absolute treat to drive on, lined with trees on both sides, and running along a river.

We did not have time to explore the village that day but decided that someday we would like to spend a day here. For now, we had one more ‘detour’ planned for the day - a drive to the lost village of Hinju, on the Lamayuru - Padum trek.
By about 2 pm we rejoined the highway some 20 km before Khaltse and drove on towards Lamayuru, happy at being reunited with the Indus. It had not even been 20 minutes since our return to the highway that we got stuck in a hold-up.

Road blasting was going on as a part of four-laning the highway, and we had to wait. As I napped, Aarti clicked. Lunch was taken care of by some fruits, juices and sandwiches bought earlier in the day.

Rejoining the Indus River


The little one was copying everything that his elder brother did


Blast away!


More blasting happening

After waiting for about an hour, we finally got permission to move on. Soon we had to start our search for the cut to the village of Wanla, our third and final detour for the day.

Different maps mark this detour at different locations, making things more difficult. It is actually located on the new road which goes towards Fotu La crossing through Lamayuru.

We bid adieu to the tarred road as we took the cut towards Wanla. The road initially runs almost level with the river, and after a picturesque 13 km, one reached the quaint village of Wanla.

As one enters the village, a cut to the right leads over a bridge and to some hot springs. On this corner, there is also a huge camping ground for trekkers, as this again is a famous trek route.

The village of Wanla is famous for wood carvings, and we went to check out one of the workshops there. Unfortunately, nothing was ready and we couldn't buy anything. The Wanla Gompa was high above the village, and we could see the road going up towards it. We then continued on towards Phonijla.

Level with a stream on the way to Wanla


The stream is actually more of a river


Somewhere between Wanla and Phonijla

The road worsens after Wanla and is quite dusty. The 7 km from Wanla to Phanijla took about 20 minutes. Phonijla looked much like Wanla, except that it had an STD booth.

From Phonijla, one road goes towards Hinju, where we were headed, and the other towards Hanupatta and Sisir La (4800 m), which is about 30 km from Phonijla. After Sirsir La, one climbs down about 10 km and comes to Fotoksar.

We were very surprised when locals at Phonijla told us that the road actually goes all the way up till Fotoksar! This is part of the fantastic Lamayuru - Padum trek, and with the road made all the way up till Fotoksar, a good 3 days can be shaved off this trek.

However, we did not take the risk of doing it, as we were running short on time, and also because Kiyang was not at its fittest.

We drove on, eastwards towards Hinju. The road was now very bumpy and dusty. 4x4 had, of course, been engaged a while back, but Kiyang’s sputtering problem had returned with a vengeance, and it was now stalling much more than the previous day.

The 10 km from Phonijla to Hinju took about 40 minutes, and was pretty tiring, given that we already had had a long day. We’d planned to camp at Hinju Village.

But upon reaching there realized that the valley was a bit narrow and not that deserted to camp in. Also, most of the camping grounds were marked by locals and were let out on rent. The Chilling - Hinju trek is apparently quite popular as well.

Hinju was the end of the road, and seeing that always makes us happy (total weirdos we are!). But apart from that, the place did not impress us much, so we decided to not stay there. It was 5:30 pm then, and we decided to stretch a bit and get to Lamayuru for the night.

The end of the road at Hinju


On the way back from Hinju to Phonijla


The road is quite dusty and the landscape quite dramatic




A 'paid' campsite between Phonijla and Wanla


Jalebi bends, while climbing Lamayuru, known as Hangro Loops


Sunset about to happen


The moonscape at Lamayuru

In an hour we had reached the main road and thought of giving the new road till Lamayuru a try. However, two workers stopped us, saying that some blasting work was going on and the road was closed for the day.

We then went back to take the jalebi road, which indeed is horrible. Some 30 switchbacks and much frustration later, we reached Lamayuru around 7:45 pm and went straight to Hotel Moonland, which had been recommended by our hotel guy in Leh. We got a nice, clean room at a reasonable rate.

Day 8: Lamayuru - Fotu La - Chitkan - Dha - Batalik - Kargil

Our initial plan for the day included a night stay at Dha to experience the Aryan culture. However, as the trip progressed and with a day lost at Rohtang, we decided against spending the night there. Given its proximity to Leh, Dha could be done on a later trip when we could actually spend a day or two there getting to know the people.

We now had two options, either to go back towards Khaltse and then take the well-known road along the Indus towards the Aryan village or to cross over Fotu La and then take a cut to the north through a village called Chiktan. So far, we’d only seen the Chiktan road on Google Earth. We asked a couple of guys at the hotel we were staying at in Lamayuru, and they confirmed the existence of the road. So we obviously decided to take it, since that is what we usually do - explore the unknown.

The view towards Lamayuru Monastery from our hotel

We started the day on a leisurely note, and it was only by 8:30 am that we managed to get back on the road again. The climb to Fotu La was nice and easy, with excellent roads and lovely weather due to the cloud cover. The road is a pretty sight as it snakes through the stark, brown landscape. The road on the other side of Fotu La is being widened, thus the progress after the pass was a bit slow. About 30 odd km after Fotu La, we reached the village of Khangral, from where the cut to Chiktan village is marked on the highway. One can also ask for Sanjak to identify this cut going towards Dha.

The road snaking up towards Fotu La


A viewpoint on our ascent to Fotu La


The view from the viewpoint towards Lamayuru


Prayer flags mark the pass, Fotu La


The view as one descends from Fotu La towards Kargil


The cut for Chitkan is well marked on the highway

The next 35 km, till the road re-joins the Indus river, is on a flat river bed. The river flows next to the road in a lush green, densely populated valley. The population in the valley seemed to be more Muslim with plenty of Mosques en route. Chiktan is about 12 km away from the highway. Here the route bifurcates, with the straighter one sticking to the river bed, while the other climbs over a pass, and eventually descends to join the Indus. We preferred to stick on the level path, as it would be shorter and also prettier. Of course, keeping in mind Kiyang’s ill health, we were now also refraining from all avoidable climbs. Along the way, we saw several loaded apricot trees on the other side of the river but sadly could not get a good shot of them. We’d reached the Sanjak bridge where one crosses over the Indus to join the road coming from Khaltse by 12:00 pm. We showed our permit here and rejoined the highway on the right bank of the Indus.

A green valley begins


Colors of nature - a green valley surrounded by purple and brown mountains


Some ruins, which were apparently a tourist attraction. We skipped it.


The road bifurcates again, we took the shorter one towards Dha


The drive by the river is splendid


The road was washed away last year by flash-floods. Embankment being made.

The road to Dha runs along the Indus, and the apricot trees now shifted to our side of the river. We plucked a few from a tree when no one was looking, and thoroughly enjoyed eating them! The Indus at this point is very wide and looks quite ferocious. It is indeed sad that such a mighty river only stays in our country for a short while. The village of Dha is off the road, and as decided we did not go to explore it. We did, however, see an Aryan lady on the road, and instantly recognized her features!

The region is aptly called the apricot country. The trees are loaded with fruit and are found in large numbers in this valley.


They taste delicious especially when plucked fresh (read stolen!)


The last stretch of Indus in India

4 km before Batalik, the road crosses the Indus, the one going straight is prohibited since it leads to the border. We said our goodbyes to the lovely Indus and began climbing. Photography is not permitted here, and even though we’d planned to take a few non-sensitive landscape shots on the sly, we couldn’t because an army officer took a lift in our car soon after the bridge. The road now climbs continuously, which Kiyang did not like too much, and kept stalling every now and then. Anyway, we climbed an entire mountain before coming to its other side where we were greeted by a lovely village and its lush green fields. Up ahead we could see Hamboting La, which Aarti loves for its unusual name. It must snow here quite a lot since this was the only pass where a BRO signboard read: “Engage 4WD mode now”, followed by one which said, “Put on snow chains”. The pass itself is nothing spectacular, except that one can see Kargil in the distance on the other side of it.

A lovely village just before Hamboting La


Hamboting La!