STARGAZING in Ladakh

  • By Rishi Agrawal
  • September 11, 2023
  • @rishiagraw
  • 3841 views
  • Know about an exciting and adventurous experience of watching stars in Zanskar Valley, Ladakh and see lovely pictures too.

The Zanskar Valley has long been one of my dream destinations. This trip didn't happen until this July, when I left with a small group of other bold travelers and adventure seekers. The preparations began a few months in advance. We aimed for a new moon week in the summer when temperatures are milder, and the rough landscape is easier to traverse. 

On July 15th, 2023, we made it to Leh. Following a day of acclimation, our group of eight boarded a Tempo Traveller and set off. On the Leh Srinagar Highway, our expert local driver navigated us through Nimmo, Khalsi, and Kargil before reaching the pristine Himalayan beauty.

Text and images by Rishi Agrawal and Arun Saha.  

We drove past small hamlets of traditional Ladakhi homes, often constructed from mud and stone. The valley's natural beauty is enhanced by the crystal-clear waterways, which mirror the surrounding mountains. Most of our drive was along the Suru River which is revered as the lifeblood of Suru Valley. The river freezes over in the winter, creating a beautiful ice landscape.

The drive into Zanskar valley provides a stunning photography backdrop, with soaring mountains, glacial rivers, and quaint towns dotting the countryside. The Himalayan scenery here seems like a fantasy. Snow-capped mountains, sharp cliffs that appear to touch the clouds, and verdant valleys provide a splash of colour to the otherwise austere landscape. 

Light pollution is extremely minimal in the Valley, making it an excellent spot for astrophotography. You will be in awe of the splendor of the night sky once the sun goes down. Like a sea of stars, the Milky Way winds its way through the night sky, and constellations one has only read about come to life.

Time seemed to slow down as we set up our tents. I layered up and prepared to take some photographs of the night sky. Unfortunately, the weather ruined the night, as a dense blanket of clouds covered the sky.

The next morning, we left for Penzi La, a major Himalayan pass in the Zanskar Range. It is a high-altitude desert located at a height of around 14,200 feet above sea level. It's an entry point to the Himalayas' most breathtaking and isolated regions. Colourful wildflowers dot the otherwise arid landscape during the short summer. 

Heavenly vistas at the Penzi-La Pass.

Beautiful glacial streams at Penzi La.  

The sky was alive by 8:30 o'clock that night. The night sky was a visual feast for me. 

The vast galaxy of stars made me feel like I was in a fantasy novel.

The view of the Drang-Drung Glacier

The next day, we set off for the Drang-Drung glacier, one of the area's biggest, most beautiful, and easiest-to-reach glaciers. 

Our campsite near the twin lakes Stat Tso and Lang Tso.

We pitched our tent close to a glacial stream near the glacier's S curve in the wind tunnel formed by two mountain ranges. We were caught in the heart of a terrifying and numbing severe storm as the sun dipped below the horizon. 

S Curve at the Drang-Drung glacier.

The breathtaking view of the milky way at Drang-Drung Glacier.

At one o’clock, in the dead of darkness, we descended a slope from a neighboring mountain range to position ourselves directly in front of the S curve of the glacier. It was awe-inspiring and humbling all at the same time. I felt as though I were cuddled up in Mother Nature's lap.

Our campsite at a glacial stream next to the Drang Drung Glacier.

The next day, we traveled to Zangla, a lovely town in the Zanskar region, where we pitched our tents in a lush green orchard. Zanskar Valley's former capital was the city of Zangla. Numerous mud-and-stone Ladakhi homes dot the landscape of the settlement. We next made our way to Purne hamlet through Padum. Our vehicle took us as far as it could go before we stopped for a lunch break in the nearby settlement of Purne.

The scenic trek from Purne to Phugtal. 

The trek to Phugtal Monastery was a challenging one, as we had to navigate through rugged terrain, including a ravine and a riverbed. The many steep climbs and drops took a toll on our bodies. However, after a few hours of trekking, we were rewarded with a breathtaking sight of the monastery, intricately cut into the side of a mountain. We spent the night at a guesthouse located at the base of the monastery, and the following day, we trekked up to reach it.

Gompa at Phugtal Monastery. 

Playful monks at the monastery.

Monks at work Phugtal Monastery. 

We were on the final leg of our journey.  Our final destination was the holy Gonbo Rongjen, a peak unlike any in the area. It's more than simply a mountain. It symbolizes the freedom to pursue one's own path. We had hoped to see a starry sky on our final night in the area, but unfortunately, we were welcomed with a dull overcast. Fortunately, the sky cleared up at sunset, and we witnessed the miracle of nature that night. I shot some of my most amazing Astro shots on that night.

Gonbo Rangjon during the day.

Milky way against the backdrop of Gonbo Rajgjon

The mesmerizing milky way at Gonbo Rangjon.

The next morning, we started our journey to Manali via Kargyak village and Shinkula Pass. The 83 km from Kargyak to the top of Shinkula is a test. While most of the route travels through open fields, it sometimes crosses rivers. In many situations, they are not little streams of water but rather substantial rivers. The vehicle got stuck, and we needed professional assistance to get ourselves out.

Frozen lake at Shinkula Top.  

Our group at Shinkula Pass.

The route to Manali via Keylong, Jispa, and Darcha was very scenic. At some point during the descent, suddenly, many mobile phones went abuzz with a notification sound. It was a sign that we had re-entered the real world.


Author  Rishi Agrawal is an IIT BHU Kashi/IIM Calcutta graduate who is now  a technology entrepreneur. He is also an author and photographer. Author  Arun Saha is a veteran photographer and ex Indian Air Force.

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Also read

1. Drive Leh to Zanskar Valley

2. Album Journey to Phuktek Monastery, Ladakh

3. Album Suru Valley

4. Album Drive Leh to Kargil 

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