The Zanskar Range, strategically placed in the within the Great Himalayan range of mountains, is spread over a vast area, from south-eastern boundaries of the state of Kashmir and extending north-west to the eastern limits of Baltistan. It separates Ladakh from the valleys of Kashmir and the Chenab River on one end, and Kinnaur from Spiti in the Himachal Pradesh region. This function of the range lends it geographical importance. It is home to several famous passes which connect Ladakh with Kashmir including the 13000 feet high Zojila Pass, situated in the extreme north-west of Zanskar range. Many rivers originating in different branches of this range flow northward, and join the great Indus River.
Snowed for seven months a year, when it can only be reached through a walk over the frozen Zanskar river, the remote Zanskar valley is perhaps one of the last Shangri Las. It comprises a large area of 5000 sq km made up of two valleys, the Stod/Doda and the Tsarap/Lugnak, which meet to form the Zanskar River at Padum. A road connecting the Padum region to Kargil was built in the 1970s to connect this ‘Hidden Himalayan Kingdom’ to the outer world, however, this road also remains closed for a period of seven months.
Even in the remaining five months, it is a hardy visitor who embarks on this beautiful but back-breaking journey from Kargil to Padum. Leaving the hustle and bustle of Kargil, the road leads to the Suru valley, a green swathe between dry rocky mountains. Poplar and willow trees line the road and emerald green fields of peas and barley spread out from small villages in a breath-taking view. After a while, the road starts climbing up, giving you the illusion that you can reach out and touch the snow-capped peaks.
The Gangri Glacier makes a dramatic appearance and the trees start thinning out. A small white chorten indicates Rangdum, the first Buddhist village on the way. The next stretch starts with the Penzi-la pass. Snow-covered mountains rear up on both sides of the road, which is now a thin stretch of brown. Up ahead comes the magnificent Drang Drung Glacier, the source of the Stod River. A speck of green in the distance gives way to stone houses, cows, horses, and humans. The mountains move apart and the plans stretch out lazily and luxuriously, welcoming one to Padum, the main administrative center where people gossip at bus stops and casually share their stories of the arduous Chadar trek.
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