How To Get To Padum in Zanskar From Leh If You're On A Budget?
Recently, someone reached out to me after he made up his mind to volunteer as a teacher for Jamyang Foundation and go to Dorje Dzong - which is a remote and beautiful nunnery in the isolated Himalayan ranges in Zanskar (now part of the Union Territory of Ladkah, thanks to the mindless actions of our nationalist government on August 5, 2019, when article 370 was unjustly abrogated. It's not easy to get there and it could be pretty intimidating for some as there is absolutely no way of contacting the nunnery for directions, etc. (unlike a hostel/hotel, etc. you get the point). It's around a 2-day journey from Leh which I explained to this gentleman over email. I thought it'd be fit to paste that conversation here as it'd help anyone going there in the near future. I'm going to add relevant pictures once I dig my archive. But here is our 'conversation':
Hello Gautam, This is Mr. XYZ, I had recently texted you on instagram regarding volunteering for Jamyang foundation. I would like to do the same, and I have contacted them. Anyway, here are a few questions I have. It would be really helpful if you could help me with the same.
1. What is the easiest route to get to Dorje Zong? (Considering how I will have to rely on public transport) Is it easier to go from Srinagar or Leh? Or is there a better, more economical option?
2. How much did you spend on your entire trip?
These are the only queries I have as of now, please help me out!
Thank you in advance
My detailed response as I'm such a good, caring, loving and sarcastic human (all but 1 are true!) -
Thank you for reaching out and as mentioned - I'm so glad you're doing this. Like you, I was on a strict budget too. Here are the answers to your questions:
1. The route to Dorje Dzong - considering the blockade in Srinagar in light of what our government has been doing over the past 3 months - would be optimal from Leh. But I'd advise you to take 1-2 days in Leh just to ACCLIMATIZE - as your life depends on it. If you're a high altitude trekker - you will know. If you're flying directly to Leh (like how my friend and I did) then you should spend a few days in Leh to acclimatize. If you're taking the ground route from Delhi then I think you'll be fine even if you don't rest.
Anyway, coming back to your question - from Leh, there is a bus to Kargil which costs between 400 - 650 Rs. (I don't quite remember). It leaves at around 1-1:30 in the afternoon as per what the schedule was in July 2018. The bus will take approx 7-8 hours to reach Kargil and then what we did was go to the taxi stand (people will direct you) and talk to all cabbies who are headed to Padum the next morning. My friend and I didn't book any stay in Kargil - which was stupid of us - but I'd encourage you to find a suitable accommodation for yourself. We just walked around at 10 in the night asking for a room and we were pretty exhausted. I wouldn't advice you to do the same - but rather, go prepared.
But there are taxis that can take you from Leh to Kargil in just 5 hours at a slightly higher price - around Rs. 900. I think that's the best option. We were VERY lucky to find a cab going to Zanskar next morning. We reached the taxi stand at 11 pm which is pretty late. If you do plan on spending a day in Kargil - for example - leaving Leh on Tuesday, reaching Kargil Tueday night - spending entire Wednesday exploring Kargil and leaving for Zanskar Thursday morning - THEN I'd say taking the bus is a good option as you save money. If you plan to leave next morning from Kargil (like us) then i'd advice you to take a 'shared taxi' from Leh to Kargil which will leave Leh in the morning and you can be in Kargil by afternoon leaving you plenty of time to not only book your ride to Zanskar but also explore Kargil. I hope this makes sense. You can also NOT book your stay in Kargil and hope to find a room there provided you reach early. Rates are seemingly cheaper when you speak in person rather than book online.
Now to Padum is a 14 hour-ish journey from Kargil given the stops and it's an extremely rough ride. But you will again have to find 'shared taxis' that go there. We went in a SUV with 4 other locals of Padum. It cost us around 1000 per person for the ride. Which I felt was a fair price considering how difficult the drive is.
However, I've read that there is a weekly bus service from Leh to Padum, but you will have to do research and I don't think it's there anymore. So here's what you'll need to do -
1. go to Leh. If by flight, then acclimatize for 1 day minimum. This is a must and stay as hydrated as you can.
2. When in Leh, go to the bus stop - check the bus schedule and see if it's changed from what I've told you. If not, then you'll see bus timings for Kargil. If there's a bus that leaves earlier in the morning - take that. Earlier the better.
3. Decide if you want to stay in Kargil for an extra day or not and book your stay according to your time of arrival. If you're taking the 1 pm bus then book in advance. But IF there's an earlier bus OR if you take a shared taxi (which shouldn't be more than 800-900 imo) then it's your call whether to book in advance or not.
4. Once you arrive in Kargil, go to taxi stand and find a shared taxi to Padum. It should be around 1100. Our taxi driver came to our hotel next morning at 5:45-6 am to pick us up. If I find his number, I'll share.
5. Once you reach Padum (probably by dusk) - find a room to stay in - we stayed at Ibex Hotel as it was right at the junction. But there could be cheaper options. All are very close to the market - you shouldn't have a problem. Talk to people there - there's a bakery and Mr. Lobsang was helpful. Ask them how you could go to Dorje Dzong. There should be a cab that'll take you. It was pretty expensive the first time - they told us 900 but do bargain. You're not familiar with the area so it's hard for you to figure.
6. After the first time, it's not that hard. What we did after was that during our free time - we would set out to Karsha from Dorje Dzong (which is Eastwards) and it takes around 1.5 hours to get there on foot (unless you can find a lift from Rejing or other villages close to Dorje Dzong). And once you're in Karsha/or at the bridge you can always ask for a life to Padum as we found some. And you can do the same from Padum to Karsha (there are many cabs that go to Karsha for cheap) and hike it back to Dorje Dzong. But I'd advice you to be familiar with the route and not to hike back after sunset as it's not too easy. (Take a headlamp!)
Basically, you can tell that we just winged it. We barely planned anything and I had the privilege of being with a friend so I always had some company. But if you're alone - doing what we did could be intimidating - like not having things booked in Kargil and searching for options late at night. Trekking back from Karsha to Dorje Dzong post sunset. You do have the option to go to places like Phugtal Monastery (supposed to beautiful - we didn't have time. We'll do it next time we're there) and Zangla, Karsha but you also have the option to stay with the nuns and be there in Dorje Dzong through out. No classes on Saturday Sunday so kids do go back home to their parents. We decided to go and come back on Sunday/Monday morning too.
WHEN YOU'RE IN PADUM - DO TELL SOME PEOPLE YOU TRUST THAT YOU'RE THERE THROUGH LEKSHE TSOMO - they'll understand where you need to go. Say "Dorje Zong Chomu Gompa" as Chomu is feminine.
On our way back - we made the journey from Padum to Leh within a day. It was 3 of us then - as one of our other friends joined us - and we took a cab from Padum to Kargil for ~1000/head and left at 4:30-5 am. We reached Kargil by afternoon as we didn't stop much and took a shared taxi for approx 700/head. We were back in Leh that night, but again we didn't have anything booked so we roamed around looking for a place to stay. It was fun though.
2. Now during my trip - I also spent time in Leh and went around. I went to Pangong Lake (through public transport - check buses at bus stand - Rs. 275) and we also went to Turtuk in Nubra Valley once we came back from Zanskar - again through buses and public transport. I spent around Rs. 35-40,000 in 40 days and that includes everything except flights. We spent a little more than we should have in Zanskar but that was because we stayed in Padum for more days than we wanted to as the kids were on a week-long summer break when we went to Dorje Dzong at around 16th July. Otherwise we would've spent 3.5k less I guess. Keep bargaining. We also bought a sleeping bag thinking we'd not have space but they have a guest room with a bed so you can sleep there. So we spent extra there.
We also decided to visit Hemis, Thiksey and Shey monasteries and since the price difference was minimal - we took a shared taxi for that too. It was around Rs. 750/head for the whole visit/day. So yes, there were a lot of expenses that could be avoided but I don't regret anything except the mini-trek to Phugtal Monastery in Zanskar which I didn't do.
Keep talking to people there and make your intentions clear that you want to save money and use public transport. They will guide you to bus stops and taxi stands. If you want to travel around Zanskar then you can find taxis and people in Padum who can help you with this. It's very easy. Also, there are options to trek from Padum to Lamayuru Monastery, etc. Which is surely beautiful but we didn't have the time as our flights were prebooked. We might do that next year. Lamayuru is a beautiful monastery that is between Kargil and Leh. You can get a taxi from Lamayuru to Leh or a bus too, I think. Go to Leh and ask around.
Anyway, I hope this helps! Good luck for your trip and reach out to me if you find the need, would be glad to help. I also wanted to send some photos to the kids so if you'd be kind enough to take them along then do let me know - I can have it physically mailed to wherever you live.
So yes, as I mentioned in the email - I hope this bit of information helps you figure out what to do and how to get there.
Personally, I feel that you can bargain for a better price to go from Padum to Dorje Dzong on your first visit. It's good to go by cab because you will be slightly confused otherwise - unless you're going with someone who's been there before or if you're lucky to be friend with someone there or if someone is showing it to you out of the kindness of their hearts.
Until next time,