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An arduous trek to Phuktal Monastery, Zanskar Valley

experience of overcoming a nearly impossible trek to Phuktal monastery with the help of warm villagers

An arduous trek to Phuktal Monastery,  Zanskar Valley
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I lived this adage when I completed the trek to the Phugtal monastery in Zanskar Valley in a day. Zanskar valley, in the Ladakh district of Jammu and Kashmir, is probably the most isolated valley in India and Phuktal is amongst the most remote places in Zanskar. It was my dream and probably the only reason why I decided to solo backpack to the virgin land called Zanskar Valley. And I must admit: It was worth all the effort! I still regard the Phugtal trek as a crowning achievement.

The trek wouldn't have happened unless I had miscalculated in my planner for the trek to Zanskar. Also, my two local friends and I were the only travellers that day to reach the monastery, after braving a series of flat landslides. Others opted to stay at Cha Village, apparently the only 'civilised' village you will spot on your way, apart from Purne village which is on the opposite side of the River Lungnak.

I was fascinated with this remotest of monasteries ever since I saw its photograph in a calendar I bought in Ladakh and knew I had to do this trek. I was warned against my plan of doing the same day trek by everyone who knew about it. In fact, local people at Cha Village were fascinated with me when they heard about my plan and it was the same reaction I got from the monks at the monastery. I could see their stunned faces. The same day trek from Phugtal is nearly an impossible task because of the rough patches they exclaimed. Nobody ever did it and it seems we are the only ones who attempted to cover Phuktal in a day.

The Phuktal monastery is the epitome of monks living high up in the mountains, detached from the rest of the world. All of this made the trek to the Phuktal monastery, not just totally offbeat but also an unbelievable adventure. Phugtal Gompa is also known as the 'cave' monastery because of its unique construction which is built into the cliffside like a honeycomb. Founded by Gangsem Sherap Sampo in the early 12th century, it is located at the mouth of a cave on the cliff face of a lateral gorge on Lungnak River. For me, Phugtal is the prettiest and the most stunning monastery which India can boast of.

The monastery is helmed in the remotest part of Zanskar which requires a trek of about 2 days from the nearest motorable road. No wonder I felt lifeless at the end of the trek after surviving nearly 2 deadly falls. The trek started at 4 am in the morning. This eventually also made me realise that we should never over exert our bodies with an overdose of adventure. You never know when your body will give up! A few hours of driving from Padum, the biggest town in Zanskar, brought us to the "end of the road". After this, a compulsory walk of several hours (5 for the locals, we took a little less than 8 hours) through high mountain passes of the Greater Himalayas lead to the Phuktal monastery.

I started my journey from the end of the road after my early morning drive from Padum, the administrative town of Zanskar brought us to Anmo Village, from where we started our trek for Phugtal. On the left side, villages of Cha and Anmu are the only signs of civilisation. They could be spotted from afar by the lush green cultivation around them, a stark contrast to an otherwise golden barren landscape. Another camping option en route to Phuktal is a village called Purne, on the opposite side of the river Lungnak. A wooden bridge takes you across. To reach Phuktal monastery via Purne, you need to cross three such bridges, but the route is wider and not so high up, hence a lot safer than via Cha.

A walk of several hours (3 hours according to locals, but we took 7 hours straight) which required us walking over the narrow potholes, sliding through the rocky and steep passages and deciding to jump over the frequent slippery landslides. We saw no signs of civilisation till the time we reached Anmu, which is the first village on the way to Cha just after the end of the motor-able road. Soon after we started our walk, came a point where we couldn't figure a way ahead. We had to literally walk down the cliff which fell into a gorge deep down. While we were just staring nervously at this difficult patch, contemplating a safe way to cross, Tenzing from the village Anmu came by.
Without any hesitation she crossed through, as easily as one would climb down the stairs in their house. Realising our predicament she came up again, and helped us all! We couldn't have thanked her enough!

Later, while crossing through Anmu, her family invited us over for tea. We had some tea, home-made bread and the most amazing yogurt. Humbled by their hospitality and hearts filled with gratitude, we carried on. If they were visitors in our city, guests in our homes, would we have treated them the same? Would they go back thinking the same of us as we did of them? You can take a night halt on the trek to Phuktal monastery at Cha Village. The house where we rested at Cha was basic.

Cha is midway between the end of the motor-able road and the Phuktal monastery. It's a tiny village, without any shop or school. It does have a health centre and a satellite phone and is the headquarters of the Lungnak Block, as the area is called. Trekkers sometimes halt in Cha on the way to the Phuktal monastery. Longer treks to Manali via Shingo-la also pass through Cha. A few houses have realised the opportunity and offer their house as home stays for trekkers. While we prepared to leave early morning for the Phuktal monastery, the lady in our homestay had already gathered her first basket of the day.

Another camping option en route to Phugtal is the Purne village, on the opposite side of the river Lungnak. Phuktal is estimated to be just 6 kms from Cha, which according to the villagers should take around an hour and a half maximum. But this is where the most challenging part of our trek started and the 6 kms took 5 hours. After resting in Cha, we continued our journey towards the final leg. It was a straight path without much chance of getting lost, except within our own selves. The Phuktal trek is probably the best way to rediscover yourself amidst the barren beauty, which gives you good company while you search your soul! As they say, "Not until we are lost, do we begin to find ourselves." Walking through the wind battered rocks, the forces of nature surrounded us. Their presence was powerful, enigmatic and left us in awe.
Rocks carved with ancient scriptures in Tibetan script are seen everywhere.
These petroglyphs are pieces of art! They are usually just casually strewn around monasteries. They could be centuries old, or they could be made recently by a monk chiselling away in a monastery.

Finally, we reached Phuktal. This is what we were after, the most important and the most remote monastery in the entire Zanskar valley. Hidden in a cave on a hill side! And all the pain, the effort, seemed worthwhile when I finally saw my dream Monastery for the first time! After the long, breathtaking (and breathless) walk up at around 4200 meters in the Phuktal valley, the sight of the Phuktal monastery was, more than anything – so relieving! I still wanted to gaze at it but since we were short of time we continued our trek towards the monastery. Three stupas mark the boundary of any village in Zanskar.

There is a small guest house just before these stupas, where visitors can halt for the night. As we had halted in Cha, we didn't stay here. We continued our walk through the winding steps that start soon after these stupas. As we entered the monastery, we were a source of curiosity for the wide-eyed monks, who expressed concern after hearing our plans to trek back the same day, as they could see our exhausted faces and lifeless bodies. By the time we reached Phuktal monastery the monks had gathered for lunch where we were welcome to join. The view at the lunch venue was mind blowing and it won't cost you a dime. Just a lifetime of being a monk! Or a trek like ours! One of the young monks gave us a bowl and served us the same food that the monks were having. Lunch was simple, mostly boiled and healthy food. Some food was shared with the crows and other birds that joined in. The meal was followed by tea. After this, the monks retired for their afternoon chores.

I was enjoying it all and every effort and pain vanished as I roamed the monastery and gazed out over its ramparts at the mountains and I just wanted time to stop. But alas came the realisation that I need to trek back though my heart was loth to go. The places we visited – some of them deep remote parts of the Himalayas – are surely among the most beautiful parts of our planet. The beauty of the Zanskar landscape changed our definition of beautiful. And it's in your face isolation, we learnt a whole lot about ourselves!
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