The main difference in my Padum experience on this trip was that I spent more than 12 hours there. If you’re going to Zanskar then Padum is a necessary evil and its best not to dwell. I used Padum-time to shave, bathe, clean my clothes and prepare myself for what I expected to be the most difficult part of the trip: transiting the horse-trails of Parfi-La and Hanuma-La from Zanskar river to Lingshed.
It was terrific to have the bicycle in Padum as it gave me free and quick mobility all over town. Without the bicycle I would have had to do extensive trudging to and from Mentokling on that incredibly rough and flooding road, and also the miserable 2-3km journey to and from the TRC. So… maybe Padum is not a great town to HAVE a bicycle, but 110% its a terrible town to NOT have a bicycle.
Padum Geographic Location and Access
Padum is the biggest city in Zanskar. Currently the only road to Padum is a two day drive from Kargil: first up the gorgeous Suru valley and then over 4100m Pensi-La.
As of 2019 vehicle access to Padum is still only via Kargil.
Current access to india’s northern areas is via roads that follow the lines of control with Pakistan and China, and large parts of these borders are not acknowledged by India. If you look at maps of the current “Line of Control” between India and Pakistan you’ll see that the ‘border’ lies remarkably close in the region around Kargil, making it unlikely that route can be kept open for military supply.
Indian government has slowly been developing an alternate route straight up the middle of Ladakh territory: first they built the tunnel under the Rhotang to allow year round access to Lahaul (open to emergency use in 2017, expected to open to the public in 2020.) Now it is planning a tunnel under Shingo-La to allow year round access to Padum although it won’t be completed for decades. They are also currently building a road from Padum down the Zanskar river valley to the Indus.
Once these routes are complete Padum will have lost its remoteness, will be a stop on a long remote highway (albeit probably continue to be pretty treacherous given the weather, altitude and the unstable slopes.
There is now also talk of an airfield in Padum.
Vehicle access to Padum via Zanskar River Valley:
The new route being developed to padum is a direct route up the Zanskar river valley from Nimmu at the confluence of the Indus and Zanskar. This is the route of the famous and overly touristed “Chaddar Trek”, the frozen river walk that has become so popular. This road has been under construction for 10 or 20 years, slowly progressing from both sides. The difficulty is that it must traverse sheer faces of very hard rock and in the past the progress has been measured in days per meter. I heard from a road engineer that this year some new drilling machines were delivered that can progress at 3-5 meters/day, so this new route might be open in 2022-2023. The current road down the zanskar river valley is a gorgeous flat thing, and even paved in places. Currently it dead ends at the working face of the rock they’re drilling. There is another team working to extend the road up from Nimmu, they’ve made great progress too but as of 2019 both teams are still many kms apart. The teams are currently equidistant to Nierak, which itself was finally connected by road this year (via Photoksar and Singge-La.)
Padum Via Shingo-La and Lungnak
The indian government has been claiming for the past 4-5 years that the road over Shingo-La to Padum is complete but that hasn’t been fact. I suppose its in the nature of the Indian bureaucracy and press to lie about stuff. In September of 2018 they completed a steel vehicle bridge across the Tsarap at Purne but the upper valley was still not passable except in late season and even then it was only by four-wheel drive enthusiasts.
The Shingo-La pass is quite high ( claimed 5100 meters), generally receives too much snow for winter travel and the road itself is usually destroyed by the winter thaw, requiring major reconstruction ever spring. The current road work below Shingo-La is routed through the river, so is only really passable in the late season when water is low.
The road below Kargiakh – the highest village in the Lungnak valley – is in generally good shape after its spring repair.
I have read that the current plan is to build a tunnel under Shingo-La but given how long it took to build the Rhotang tunnel I expect that endeavor will likely take 15-20 years.
I’ve heard that as of late 2019 the road in the upper Lungnak beneath Gamburanjan has been moved out of the river, so might be more accessible next year, but I haven’t seen photos. On my trip in late June of 2019, I found the route from Manali to Padum to be quite reasonable on a mountain bike, only exception being a portage up and down some 4′-6′ boulders in order to avoid deep river water beneath Gamburanjan.
My time crossing from Rarik to Kargiakh is documented in the following 3 blog posts:
My Padum History
1992: First time I came to Padum I walked in from Mone Gompa. I remember being depressed when the horse trail turned into a single lane graded road, and once near town there were utility poles – but at least no wires…
In 1992 Padum was a dry dusty place with buildings scattered randomly in the fields. There was a mosque and there were shops but all were closed for the few hours I was there. It was a grimy frontier town, like something out of a western. Zanskar village on a plain, but with some transport trucks and a bus parked in the fields.
Not much to say. Arrived, tried to enjoy restaurant food (chow-mein) that was utterly inedible, cooked lunch and then happened upon an unscheduled local bus leaving for Kargil so hopped on.
1999: Visit again with wife, again walking in from Mone Gompa. This time there was a road clear from Mone and the utility poles had wires. We bid adieu to our horsemen and booked a room at the Ibex hotel that proved to be much smellier and less comfortable than our own tent, so we pitched it in the field. We visited the ancient Buddhist sculptures down by the river. We found a restaurant with some foreign tourists, had chai but the food was bad so cooked for ourselves. Next day we caught a bus out of town.
2018: Visit with son, we rode into town in a jeep from just below Cha, we’re in a hurry to get to Pishu and find a horsemen. Dali-Lama is in town so place is an absolute zoo. We find a jeep to take us out of town to Pishu, stop on the way out of town for dinner, I buy some biscuits and some foam insulation to sleep on, and then we’re gone.
I’ve never actually spent time in Padum, figure its a good idea while it is still a 1-2 day drive from Kargil, while the road along the Zanskar river is still incomplete.
I’m also needing this time to connect with family back home via “Internet”, stock up on food and advice for the next part of my trip heading out to the indus via the horse trails, which I suspect will be the toughest.
I’ve got a room at Mentokling which is near a rushing creek a few hundred meters off the main street. Its quiet and has a nice lawn and the cook is good. The staff is good. The guests are tourists and government workers from India and are educated and interesting.
Tragedy: That Fan-Damily Expedition That Was Escaping Padum
The day after I arrived a large group is heading back to Leh. They have three exceptionally well-equipped 4wd vehicles. Great tires, tools, redundant repair parts. The group is a trio of families with kids that have trucked themselves in for an adventure in the remote Zanskar area. The plan was to head way up the Lungnak and visit the small villages, explore the terrain. One family came clear from the USA.
Unfortunately the women in these families are utterly disgusted by the food and lodging, this is absolutely not their idea of a good time and they want out ASAP. For them the trip so far has been a living embodiment of hell. The women are polite but do a lot of teeth clenching while talking to me.
The fact that they’re unhappy at the remarkably luxurious Mentokling bodes poorly for any trip up the Lungnak, so I suppose they made the right choice. What is clear to me from how they walk is that are extremely unfit, their glutes and core and their ridiculous shoes can’t support their weight on the uneven terrain. They are in their 40s but move like old ladies and are wearing tons of makeup. The other thing, the kids from the USA aren’t happy with the food and are really excited when the cook at mentokling makes them french fries. They aren’t happy to eat the ‘weird’ Indian food and really miss their USA fast food. And they miss their video games. Seriously.
I have a huge respect for the care and planning that was needed for this group to get where they are. I’ve done some wheeling in remote parts of the states and was never so well prepared as these guys. They got modified 4wd vehicles and have traveled so far and then ushered their families safely from Kashmir, a hell of a long drive.
The guys are all crestfallen to get so close to what was to be the best part of the trip, only to be torpedoed by their wives and kids. I suggest all the cool things they could do with an extra day: walk to the Buddhist carvings near the river, drive up and hike out to phuktal, drive to the upper lungnak. All that stuff is within an easy day for them, but its not to be. The women have put their feet down.
I’ve been in exactly this position before, a family rebellion over what should be an awesome experience, so I’m pretty sympathetic. I don’t know what I’d do if I was in their shoes. Maybe stay alone and tell them to drive themselves back. I guess its on the guys to have come so far with pissed off family, I’m sure there were danger signals all the way.
Padum Internet in 2019
The towns internet is via satellite. Is working maybe 10% of the time that I’m in town, and when its working I’m getting 30-100 kbit. As soon as my phone connects to wifi in the cyber cafe it is inundated by instant message photos, which really sucks. They’re 1-2mb each, which means most of my receiving bandwidth is going to these damn things for at least a few hours each day.
Internet is $7/hour, you pay whether there is internet or not, and there’s usually 4-8 people lurking the place waiting for their messages. Since they don’t open until 10am-11am they are full in the ‘morning’, the trick is that they seem to be empty in the late evening. At that point I get better throughput.
When the 4wd caravan left the hotel let me avail myself of their laundry facility: a tank of rainwater, a bucket, some bar soap and their drying lines. What a relief! Spent a few hours washing everything I could. The stuff I was to wear that day got washed first so it was dry at the end. I switched outfits and washed the clothes I was wearing…
The air in Zanskar is so dry that my lightweight clothing all dried in less than 30 minutes, the wool socks take a few hours before they’re bone dry.
Down by the river are some pretty great statues carved out of the stone. I’d visited these 20 years ago when there was only a dirt trail along the river, my wife and I climbed up the scree to get up to the carved rocks.
Now I rode my bike through town and down to the river. The area that used to be fields is now roads and buildings.
To get to the carvings today you ride to the edge of town towards the Lungnak valley. At the edge of town take a left and circle town. Right after the police station on the right is a fence, then a gap with dirt trail/road, follow this towards some trees. I went up the hill to a covered enclosure, then sort of bushwacked until I found the paved trail. But ticket is to stay left of the hill and you’ll be led straight to the paths.
There’s actually a sort of parking lot and paved paths now down and around the main statues, and even a sign that talks about the carvings. Is good that they’re getting some official recognition.
After visiting the carvings its still only 9:50am. I’m headed to the cyber cafe to try and do some internet. Hoping the idle morning I can sneak some good bandwidth before the rest of the town wakes up.
There’s a foreign lady sitting out front and I join her. She’s a film maker from england. Is here with a photographer to gather footage for a documentary. Pretty cool.
She’s got some sort of airline info she needs to sort out. What a nightmare to try and get anything done from Padum. I wish her luck.
Later I see her at Ibex and get to meet the Carlos the photographer and also the hotel manager. Ibex has a nice inside courtyard, a grass area with tables and chairs that is isolated from the street.
We sit out and talk. When topic turns to my search for Kashmiri food the owner of the hotel tells me of a friend of his outside town that is a good kashmiri cook! I get directions and head out.
I should also mention that my phone’s music was source of much rejoicing. They’d been without Nas for a few years now.
Padum is a pretty funny place. There is a dense part of town full of buildings, but then like a wild west set, when the town ends… it ends. In about 50 feet it goes from being a town to uncultivated wasteland.
I head out on the gravel highway. After about 1km I take a right on a road thats being built. There are curbs made of concrete, but the road bed is a wide deep ditch full of piles of rocks. Even with my mountain bike this is a very rough path. After another 500 meters I come to a weird ornamental building. Something that looks like it came from a Kazakh central planning committee.
I push the gate open and ride across a huge parking lot where the high light poles show exposed wires instead of lights.
Park the bicycle and into the dusty entrance, slick marble floors, glass enclosed area. There’s no electricity.
I hear noise in the back so make my way calling ‘hello!’. Am greeted by a young man, explain my situation and he motions for me to go into the restaurant (the dark glass enclosed area.) Inside what proves to be a senior road engineer is dining on a range of terrific smelling dishes. He invites me to sit with him. A kashmiri engineer with a gracious and polite manner.
He shares a fabulous meal with me. I am stunned by the quality of the food, certainly the best I’ve had on this trip. Terrific saturated spicing, create cloves, fresh garlic and very spicy onion.
Turns out this is the Tourist Reception Center, some sort of government provision for providing government employees a place to stay and eat.
When the engineer leaves I stay and talk with the father and son that run this hotel, and arrange to return the next day for a cooking lesson: I’ll get to learn to cook Dum Aloo, the famous Kashmiri potatoes that are loved throughout india!
And for Dinner: A Horrible Meal
For dinner I ride all over Padum in the dark to look for good food. I check out a few places but the best they can do is Maggi noodles. I’m really hankering for dal, something good and spicy. I visit the place where I’d had a good dinner the year before but its gone.
Finally someone recommends “Punjab Cafe”. Fine. Head in and it looks horrible. Don’t judge a book by its cover?
I try and order but they don’t really have anything. No egg, no potato, no meat… maggi noodles. What sort of Punjab is this? Finally cooks says fine, he’ll make some food for me.
After an hour or so wait the punk comes out of the kitchen and serves me some plate of glop. Announces its Dum Aloo and Butter Chicken. Not much spice, the meat is awful. I must feign gratitude and thank him profusely. And then the bill arrives and its very expensive. I’m not going to tell you the price, I’m still smarting. I’m an idiot to find myself in that situation. Best I can do is live and learn. I hope I won’t be too angry in the future when ordering from well meaning but incompetant chefs.
After dinner I head to a cyber cafe for another email sync up. Even after 1000rp of internet I’ve still not cleared my receiving backlog of photos and emails. The email is down and I’m sitting laughing with the cafe operators when my friend Stanzin shows.
Kashmiri Dum Aloo
Next day back to the TRC for a cooking lesson. I took photos of every step.
Result was…. simply awesome. So few people I’ve met on this trip can cook like this! The food is just so damn flavorful. Its an utter relief to enjoy quality spiced food and I’m glad it wasn’t my taste misbehaving.
The few unusual things I noticed… the cloves were thermonuclear. I’ve never smelled cloves like that before. Was like clove teargas. He said they’re special cloves that you can only get in Kashmir. Not sure if thats true but its what he said.
The son was on the junior national cricket team, was badly injured in what he claimed was a racist beating, spent months in the hospital and can no longer play at the top level of the game. He neglected school for cricket so has no high school diploma. His father was a truck driver for many years, also ran a few small businesses that went bankrupt. They jumped at this opportunity to run this hotel, not realizing it was a strictly government hotel, that they were not even permitted to advertise.
I begged them to start a restaurant in the city and they said they’re working on it.
I personally found their food to be among the best I’ve ever had, but I am infatuated with the kashmiri spicing. I would hope that their cooking would be 100% successful in Padum, but then again it is about 10 light years from the food available there, could be the cultural impedance mismatch is too high?
Final Padum Connections
Last year I took a nice portrait of the shoe repair guy that works in a tent at the main corner of town. I made a print and brought it for him.
Here is a different shopkeeper that sold me a range of spices and biscuits for the next part of my trip.
Last Night – Terrific Dinner at Hotel Ibex
The filmmaker volunteered to make dinner, to cook a proper dish for everyone. This was a great courtesy and I really appreciated it. She took over the Hotel Ibex kitchen and we all helped as we could.
When finally the dinner was served I was very thankful for her efforts, fresh and delicious food, a thai noodle salad. If you’re reading this: I’m super thankful.
To me the other european guests seemed sort of rude, didn’t celebrate this free food as I’d have expected. Perhaps it wasn’t their thing, or they have a different idea of courtesy. I dunno.