The Darcha – Padum trek through absolute wilderness of Zanskar provides a rare opportunity to see some breathtaking landscape, especially in the upper regions. It generally takes 9-10 days to complete this trek which involves crossing the Shingo La pass (16700 feet). Technically this is called a moderate trek. Unless you are a seasoned trekker or mountaineer, let me assure that, it is not easy to trek in those rarefied mountains and to complete it you will have to go beyond your limits of physical endurance.
This is a very popular trek with European tourist, who generally takes it from Padum side. We had met 2 to 3 large group of Europeans everyday, few couples (with a guide) including a daredevil cyclist couple of Germany and lone trekker Mike from Poland. On enquiry with agents accompanying the groups, we found that we were the only Indian group this year on the trek. Though it is still known as Darcha – Padum trek, it has effectively reduced to Palamu – Ichar trek, cutting down two days of trekking, one each at both ends. Government of India is trying to build an alternate motorable road on this route which will cut the distance between Manali and Kargil. The road on Darcha side has been constructed to a little beyond Zanskar Sumdo. But small vehicles can go only upto Palamu. Only BRO trucks currently can ply between Palamu and Zanskar Sumdo. One can easily get a lift upto Zanskar Sumdo in a truck, which will cut down another day of trekking.
Darcha is on the Manali – Leh road. It is about 30 km from Keylong town, the HQ of Lahaul – Spiti. A little beyond Darcha, you leave the main road and take the diversion to Chika village and Palamu. There is good amount of BRO activity at Palamu which also is the first campsite. It is a picturesque location by a small stream. At around 11000 feet, it is not very cold either.
The second day camp is setup at Zanskar Sumdo. A small stream meets the Zanskar river at a little distance form the campsite. Sumdo means confluence. Real trekking starts from Zanskar Sumdo which is around 12500 feet. Here you leave the valley and start climbing to the base camp site Chumik Napko or (Chumik Napo). On crossing river near campsite one faces two option -- the BRO road on left which look enticing and the mule trek on right ( to be serched carefully). Don't take the BRO road as meets a dead end after some time.
Reaching Chumik Napko involves 6-7 hours trekking. Apparent distance is about 14km. In hills distance is not measured in kilometers but hours. The climb is tough with mostly ascends. You will get a beautiful valley with snow capped mountains all around. Though the claimed altitude of Chumik Napko is 15000 feet, my Casio ABT watch showed a little beyond 14000. I had a general feeling that heights mentioned in most sites are inflated. This is well above snow lines. We had to set up our camp clearing snows (Aug 18, 2011).
The climb to the Shingo La pass from Chumik Napko would take 4-5 hours. To seasoned climbers, this climb may not seem harsh, but for newbie like us it was tough. It involves only ascends, some of which were steep. Snow makes it slippery and dangerous. The higher you go, the more breathlessness you feel. None of us had taken Diamox as we were warned about the serious side effects of it. The pass was covered in around 1 feet snow, but fortunately the trek was visible, courtesy couple of teams which had crossed it earlier on the day. The official height of the pass is 16700 feet. But if I had to believe my watch, it is around 16000 feet. There is no official signpost proclaiming the height as 16700 feet. Around the pass, you get to see small semi frozen lake and the majestic view of a glacier with two rivers originating from it n either side.
The climb to the pass from Lakhang side appeared much steeper to me. The camp at Lakhang can be set either a couple of kilometer once you climbed down from top to a valley or onto a second valley further down below. The valley below where our camp was set is another hour of walk. The trek from Chumik Napko to lower Lakhang was one of the most tiring experience for us as it took almost 10-11 hours. Altitude of Lakhang is around 14000 feet, but it is well below snow line.
Lakhang to Kargyak was the best part of the trek as you walk on the valley most of the time. The apparent distance is about 20 km. It will take about 7-8 hours through lot of river beds and dusty trails under a blazing sun. This was the only stretch where it was difficult to avoid getting your feet wet because of large no of streams. Most of us had got blisters that day. Kargyak is the first human habitation you would meet after 4/5 days of trekking. It is a relatively big village and has a satphone. You can call up your home from here. You need to go upto the village to find the phone. The household with phone can easily be identified from the satellite dish and solar panel. The camp is set about a kilometer beyond the village.
Next stop on the trek is Purne. Enroute you pass a couple of villages and small settlement. The trek is along right bank of the river till you reach a village after a couple of hours where you cross a well built bridge. From thereafter you trek along left side of the river finally crossing it again near Purne. About 4 hours from Kargyak, you would reach Teesta village which also have a satphone. I called up my home from here. The trek involves constant ups and downs and hence is tiring. You would also be walking under a blazing sun which can easily drain you out. When you approach Purne, you need to leave the main trek and go down a steep path to cross the river to reach the campsite.
Purne is a nicely managed campsite. You feel good to camp on a village having humans around after 5/6 days. Many tourists stay here for two nights and take the side trip to Phuktal monastery from here. The round trip takes around 6-7 hours. You always need to add couple of hours to the estimate given by locals simply because you can not move at their speed.
We had our next and last camp at Pipula. This is a small dhaba / hotel with a small campsite. The site is not good because it lacks grass and is full of pebbles. Purne to Pipula is also lots of ups and downs and hence not easy, specially when your legs are tired after 5/6 days of trekking. The distance is about 15-16 km, i.e. 6-7 hours trekking. If you are not tired, then you can camp at Ichar which is another 2-3 hours from Pipula. By this time the landscape become too monotonous. The hills are devoid of vegetation will not make you take out your camera out. The landscape in upper region was stunning, but not here.
On our arrival at Pipula, we were delighted to see BRO vehicles on the hill across the Tsarp river. Construction of road from Padum side has reached this far. Construction was started around 2002. In another 10-15 years you may get a motorable road from Darcha to Padum across Shingo La pass. This will also bring development to these desolate locations. It may also change the face of tourism. Instead of trekking, you may get home stays then. May be road will be built on one side of the river, while the existing trek on other side will remain a trekking route.
On our final morning we had trekked to Ichar. It took 2-3 hours. After a couple of hours wait there, we got into a BRO truck that took us to Padum via Radu. The road from Radu to Padum is metalled. Ichar to Radu is about 8-9 km and Radu – Padum is about 20km. By taking lift, we had killed another day of trekking. There is no point trekking on motorable road. Neither the landscape is that great to inspire you to continue on foot.
Padum is a decent size town with hotels and restaurants. It was the old capital of Zanskar. It is serving as business centre to many remote areas around. There also is a JKTDC facility. Taxis and buses to Kargil are available here. Also all postpaid mobile connections works here. Besides the Padum - Darcha trek, another popular trail - the Padum - La Maruyu trek starts here.
Some of the names of places I had mentioned here may differ from other website. The names mentioned by me here is based on actual experience or names as written on those places. Like, many sites had written as Reru, but it is Radu (pronounce as Ra Ru). Further, many website had mentioned Padum – Leh distance as 138 km. This is ridiculous. To reach Leh, you need to go via Kargil. Distance between Padum to Kargil is almost 250 km and requires 10-11 hours drive. The road is bad, non metalled. You cross the Penzila pass (14000 feet) en-route. You also get to the stunning view of Darung Durang glacier on the way. There is only one place to eat on the route – Rangdum. You do not have option to be choosy. Eat whatever you get. If have started late from either end (Padum or Kargil) it will be a better option to spend the night here. There are couple of facilities including a tented campus here. If you are close to Kargil, then one of the cost effective way of spending the night is a Malla Guest house, located at Lankerchey, 35 km from Kargil or 5 km from Sankoo village. This is a family run home which offers bed @200 rupees. This appeared to be a popular stopover for trekkers on this route.
Finally, Kargil – Leh is another 6-7 hours drive. This road provides some breathtaking landscape besides the famous stretch of Magnetic Road. One should ask the websites claiming Padum – Leh as 138 km as to how they have compressed 400+ kilometers journey of two days into just 138 km?
(Trek done from 16th to 24th August, 2011)