If I don't answer your question in this document or in any of the others, or you can't find the answer, please feel free to email me.
Where did you go? Ladakh and Zanskar are in the extreme northwest of India, sandwiched between Pakistan and India. It is generally near Kashmir, but it a mountain range over and is quite settled and quiet.
How long were you there for? About five weeks total.
What did you do? I went on two on treks. The first was through the Markha Valley, which is close to Leh and easy to arrange logistically. It is scenic, not too hard, and has easy route finding. There are lots of variations to it as well. The second trek from a classic crossing of a region known as Zanskar (there is a Zanskar river, but we didn't get to it for a week) from Darch in the southeast to Lamayuru in the northwest. The rest of the time was spent in Leh, with a couple of days in Delhi.
Did you go by yourself? No, I went there with my friend Brian Frankle (of former ULA fame). He stayed another two weeks after I left and managed a motorcycle ride, a summit of a 20,000 foot mountain, and another trek in a region bordering Tibet called the Rupshu.
What is the land like? Generally it is very dry as it is in the rainshadow of the Himalaya. The valleys are very dry and dusty, with rocky soil. In some places industrious farmers have created irrigation systems and then the fields come out in a vibrant green. The land is generally high and we spent most of our time above 14,000 feet. High on the mountains are many glaciers and snow, but we had only a few snowy stretches. There are many nomads in addition to the farmers and they tend to move around with their animals.
Are there trails? There are many trails since foot and horse travel is the main mode of transit. Some of the trails are just use-trails: Beaten into the ground my the procession of many feet over the years. Others are actually engineered affairs. Many of the trails are very steep.
Did you take a guide? No, and I see little reason to take one. If you have any standard outdoor experience in North America you'll be fine, but we were one of the very few groups going at it on our own. Most of the people we met were fairly clueless in the outdoors, though many times their guides were equally clueless. We did meet some very good guides, but these were always with one or two clients, and not in a big mass gang.
What about hauling? The main mode of carrying gear seems to be on the back of a pony, horse, or mule. Almost everyone (except us) engaged a ponyman and a few animals to haul camping and cooking gear, which meant that everything got done for them and all they had to do was walk and gawk. The ponymen would usually set up camp, cook dinner and breakfast, and the strike camp in the morning. I carried everything in a 90L pack that was rarely even close to capacity. A 65 L pack would have been perfect.
What did you use for shelter? I carried a Tarptent Scarp 1. This was an excellent choice and I'd recommend it to anyone not looking for a true tarp or looking for something a bit beefier than that.
What kind of camera gear did you use? I used a Nikon D60 dSLR with a 18-70mm DX lens. This is about as basic a set up as you can get and would run you less than some compact point and shoots. I used one battery on the trip, so it is very efficient. I was happy with the resulting photos.
You seem to be rather down on ponymen. What gives? Guides and ponymen seem to be contributing greatly to trash on the trail and enmity of villagers. We saw frequent examples of ponymen and guides leaving a trail of food waste, trash, and toilet paper. There is no Leave No Trace ethic in place and the level of trash some times boggled the mind. The worst, most littered and impacted front country sites in the US are clean and pristine. Most of this comes from the guides and ponymen themselves, who are responsible for most of what we saw. Indeed, it seemed to be culturally acceptable to leave trash on the trail as long as you put a rock on top of it. Trash isn't left by independent trekkers because, to be blunt, there are almost none of them.
What is the season for hiking? Unlike Nepal, you want to be in Ladakh starting in about early June and leaving by late October.
How about the weather? It was bloody hot most of the time. Most days, even at altitude, were well over 90. Some days were over 100. This is in great distinction to the guidebook that I had that listed a high of about 70 in Leh. Most days were sunny, but we had a long stretch of rain as well. It got below freezing a few nights, but overall it was pretty moderate once the sun went down.
What guidebooks did you take? We had two: Trekking in Ladakh by Charlie Loram and Trekking in the Indian Himalaya, published by the Lonely Planet. Neither are especially stellar, but I'd give the Lonely Planet's book the title of best guidebook. We had some beautify maps, but never really used them except for planning purposes.
How did you get around? We flew from Seattle to Chicago to Delhi, then sat in the airport for eight hours and flew to Leh (about 75 minutes). Or, you can take a 2 or 3 days bus from Delhi to Leh. In Leh there is a local taxi mafia which has fixed prices for all destinations. No haggling. Prices can either be for the entire van, or per seat. Prices are generally reasonable. I had maybe the worst experience of my life in a taxi jeep from Leh to Darcha (about 12 hours). I wouldn't do it again unless I could rent out the entire thing and go with 4 friends rather than squished together with 10 strangers.
What did you do for food? Food was harder then expected and I was definitely undercaloried during the trek. For breakfast we found some muesli in Leh that we could mix with dried milk for breakfast, along with tea. In Padum we had to resort to corn flakes mixed with some dried fruit and nuts. For snacks we had some horrible dried apricots (dried to the consistency of granite), pretty good yak cheese, chapatis (scrape the mold off), cookies, raw, unsalted cashews, raisens, and peanut butter and nutella. For dinner, we rotated between mealy noodles mixed with dried onions, TVP, and a Knorr soup mix, or undercooked lentils and rice with dried onions, TVP, and a Knorr soup mix. Once or twice we had bulghur wheat with dried onions, TVP, and a Knorr soup mix. See a trend here? There were frequent parachute tents where we could get tea and cheap noodles made by Maggi. I actually rather like these, though Brian quickly found them disgusting. We could also usually buy an egg or two for some added protein.. We stayed at a few campsites where there was more of a selection of cooked food, but this usually amounted to white rice with lentils.
What about food in town? The food in Leh was decent, but the best places were where the tourists didn't go. Any place with more than a few pale faces in it was a guaranteed stinker. So, avoid most of the rooftop places in town, though you should probably try at least one for kicks and the view. We found a great noodle place (Potala) in a back alley where there was no menu and no English. But what came out was always tasty. Look for Thukpa, which is Tibetan noodle soup, usually with some fatty mutton. Momos are nice dumplings (like pot stickers).
Did you treat your water? Pretty religiously, though in the backcountry I sometimes drank straight from the source. We used a combination of gravity filter, steripen, and iodine tablets. In Leh we bought purified water from a locally run company. In other towns we bought bottled water.
Did you ever get sick? I never had gut problems, but I did have a strange breathing problem that seemed unrelated to the altitude. I still don't know what it was. I didn't eat fruit or raw vegetables for almost five weeks. I finally broke down and ate a raw onion.
How did you cook you food? We had a Whisperlite International by MSR that we got used off of Ebay and ran it off of kerosene. This sucked and I had to fix it almost every day.
What kind of footwear did you use? I was in a pair of light hiking boots, as was Brian. This worked well for both of us and I'd recommend boots for those people hauling their own stuff. I wear trail runners usually but durability concerns had me in boots. It doesn't matter the brand: They are all the same.
What were the towns like? Pretty wretched. There were one or two cute villages, but mostly they were wastelands not fit for humans to live in. As in awful. As in the worst I've ever been to.
Come on! Leh can't be that bad! Leh is the worst town I've ever been to in the developing world. It is even worse than Las Vegas. It is hot, crowded, and mostly devoid of greenery. There is no interesting place to spend time and it isn't restful. Getting a beer is tough and water frequently gets shut off. It is filled with Euro tourists and honking horns. The only peaceful time of day is in the early morning, between about 5 and 9am.
How was the wildlife? There is none. The locals killed all of it many years ago.
Would you go back? No, I wouldn't. And I would have a hard time recommending to people to visit. The development path that the Indians are taking are quickly ruining the area and the local guides and ponymen are so hard on the land that I would recommend people not work with them. The Indian army is building a huge, poorly designed and constructed road that will end quality trekking in the area. If a friend was going to go, I'd probably recommend that they go with a group like Project Himalaya. This is a small western company that seems to actually know the backroads of the area (most guides were even more ignorant about the land than we were) and should have a good LNT ethic. I ran into one of their groups in Nepal and they all seemed healthy and happy, which was a rarity in Nepal amongst guided groups.
Hmm...that doesn't sound too good. The trip was really worthwhile, though. I didn't always have a great time, but Brian was a lot of fun to travel with and the scenery was grand. I was at a transition point in my life and that clashed with the trip. Brian had a great experience and would be happy to go back, I believe. So, much of what I experienced was colored by what was going on in my head and other people will interpret the same experiences in a much different way.
What are some of the hazards of trekking in the region? Altitude sickness is the highest on the list and anyone visiting the area should spend some time learning about it. River crossings are the next most serious problem as some of the fords were pretty hard. Otherwise the region is safe and stable and you shouldn't have too many problems.
Why did it take you so long to write this? I bought a house and have been working on it.