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A High Walk Through Rupshu-Changthang

An account a journey along an ancient trade route and recently opened areas in the Rupshu region in Ladakh.

Covering an area of about 60,000 square kilometers and ranging in elevation from 2,600 meters to 670 meters, Ladakh is sandwiched between two huge mountains systems-the karakorams to the north and the Himalayas to the south. Ladakh is the Trans Himalayan region-the region of impact when the Indian subcontinent collided with the rest of Asia, 50 million years ago. One of the several geographic regions formed as a result of this impact is the Rupshu, a dry, high altitude plateau lying south-east of Ladakh. It forms part of the large area of Changthang, which spreads east into Tibet for about 1500 kilometers. It is an area which, due to its remoteness and proximity to Tiber, retained much of the character of the Tibetan way of life, with regular trade and barter continuing and trade routes being utilized as they were since they were first discovered. These routes offer exciting avenues for anybody game for a high altitude adventure.

One such route connects the Spiti valley with Ladakhi Changthang, and is still used as the main trail for trade and travel in these areas. The Parang La (pass) 5,600 meters, forms the source of the Para Chu river, an amazing river system which rises to the north o the Parang La traveling 30 kilometers eastwards and turning sharply south to enter Tibet. After flowing 85 kilometers through the plateau, it changes its course westerly to re-enter India near its confluence with the Spiti at Sumdo on the Hindustan-Tibet road, 33 kilometers before reaching Tabo.

The Parang La is the traditional trade route between the people of Spiti, Changthang and Tibet. From Spiti, the trail begins in the high altitude meadows of Kibber (14,000 feet), a two hour drive from Kaza, the district headquarters of Spiti. Kaza, is also the venue of the Ladarcha, an annual cultural fair which was initially a trading festivals which took place in the surrounding higher meadows. Kibber is the breeding ground of the famous Spiti horses and is also known to be snow leopard country.

Kibber has an ancient monastery worth a visit and is also mentioned in most guidebooks as the highest motorable village but now the road has apparently reached Tashingang, 18 kilometers uphill. On the way from Kaza to Kibber, one passes Kye village which which prides itself on the largest monastery in Spiti, the Kye Gompa-well worth a visit. From Kibber, which is also the roadhead on the Spiti side of events, the trail descends the scenic Kibber gorge and climbs to village Dumla, a small green bowl arriving in time for a last cup of butter tea for the next ten days-Dumla happens to be the last inhabitation till Karzog, more than a weeks walk away. A stiff climb above Dumla is rewarded with views of Parilungbi (Lingti valley) and Shilla, and the first days camp at Thaltak meadow below a small pass crossing, the Thaltak La. Shilla (6,132) remainded as an altitude record for forty-seven years after it was climbed in 1860 by an employee of the Survey of India. Inaccurate height computation contributed to the record till modern survey reduced it by nearly 3,000 feet.

An early morning’s start the next day begins with a gut wrenching descent to Rongchu Nullah followed by a climb upstream for an hour. The actual climb towards the Parang La begins now with a climb on screen for nearly four hours. Camp at Bongrochen (17,800 feet) meaning donkeys corpses, does not come too soon as the going, however exciting, does get a bit show.

The Spiti side of the divide is extremely dry and sunburnt, but hardly any snow conditions to be encountered. All along the route, one is held captive by the deep gorges and wind battered rock formations which characterize the first couple of days towards the Parang La. Bongrochen, the last camp before crossing the Parang La from the Spiti side, is in a bowl surrounded by high mountains on either side. An early start is mandatory the next morning as the other side of the pass has heavy snow conditions. If one is lucky, a herd of sheep crossing the pass with packs of barley strapped on to each of them provide good company. The final gradient to the pass is extremely steep and it takes a good company. The final gradient to the pass is extremely steep and it takes a good couple of hours to finally haul oneself over the top. But once there, a complete change of terrain more than compensates for the lifetime it takes to limb over this 18,500 feet high crossing. the pass on the Pare Chu side is snow clad and a broad valley greets you looking down towards the broad flood plain of the river.

There are a few well-camouflaged deep crevasses directly below the pas, which invariably claim a few sheep each year as they are shepherded over the la. Spiti horses are taken over the Changthang side where they are sold to the Changpas (nomads of Changthang), for money or Pashmina(a rare variety of wool) in return. Sticking to the right of the pass on the descent, one cross the Pare Chu at the mouth of the glacier over a not so stable snow bridge. The horses need to be coaxed here as they invariably show a little reluctance while crossing what with the river ranging a couple of feet below.

The advantage of starting this trip from Spiti is that after the first few days of continuous ascent, the descent is fairly continuous for the next days though not entirely effortless, making the walk really enjoyable. Camp is set a few kilometers below the mouth of the river at Dak Karzong, a green meadow on the banks of the Pare Achu. A chance meeting with a traveler from Karzog is not ruled out though they usually are in more of a hurry, going the entire distance in four days.

He river begins to divide itself over several channels now and the valley is nearly a kilometer and a half wide. Crossing its many channels is part of the days work as one works one’s way downstream. The next two days are spent walking along the river through green meadows and wind formations (called Kathpa boozae).

A week after having left Kibber, we reach the confluence of the Pare Chu with the Phirtse Phu at Norbu Sumdo. A river crossing here brings one to an almost incredible change of landscape as we walk north towards the Rupshu plains of Changthang. Camp for the night is at Chumik Shilale, a parrot green meadow set in wide green plains and low rolling sunkissed hills. From now on, spotting the Changthang wolf remains a very good possibility.

A few kilometers from Chumik Shilale lies Kiangdom, named after the abundance of Kiangs, the Tibetan Wild Ass found here. The walk towards Tso Moriri over a scree slope with the lake and its delta visible sends the adrenalin levels up as the enormity of the lake sinks in. kingdom lies at the southern edge of the Tso Moriri (15,000 feet), a high altitude lake 27 kilometers long and nearly 8 kilometers wide. This lake is the breeding ground for the bar-headed geese, black-necked crane and the Brahminy duck. Kingdom needs to be visited to realize the immense beauty of this area, opened only in 1994 to visitors.

The trail goes along the Tso Moriri till we reach Karzog, a permanent settlement and also the roadhead. The lake makes a fitting finale to a trek through landscape seemingly out of a picture postcard. A day or two spent here is a great idea to take in the sights and sounds of the Buddhist way of life. A worthwhile visit is to one of the Changpa settlements in a bowl high above Karzog, where living in their yak-skin tents, this hardy race breeds yaks and pashmina, one of the trade items to go over these high passes.

A four hour drive from the Tso, passing through equally scenic terrain lies Tslkar, a salt lake which was once the source of nearly all of Ladakh’s salt supply. The road climbs away from Karzog to Kiagar Tso, a smaller lake above Tso Moriri which, according to locals was part of the latter till both receded. The jeepable road passes through hot sulphur springs at Puga, well known for its healing powers, as several locals and also people from Leh will gladly testify. The dusty road climbs on to Polo Gonka, a small pass before the descent to the huge bowl of Tsokar. Large salt mounds litter the lake and the water is expectedly extremely uncomfortable to taste. There is one convenient spot to camp next to a fresh water source on the banks of Tsokar. It is not surprising to see kiangs run along and overtake the vehicle one is traveling in. on the opposite bank from the campsite is the village of Tugche, which boasts of a massive wolf trap and an ancient monastery. From the monastery, one can see the water marks of the lake which at on time was nearly 200-300 feet higher than what it has presently receded to.

Four kilometers from Tsokar one meets the main Manali-Leh highway before the climb to Taglang La, the world’s second highest motorable pass. A comfortable four hours drive away lies Leh, the capital of Ladakh, the highest and largest district in the country. And justifiable so, having witnessed first hand the enormous scale and the rugged weather beaten beauty of a region which remains much of a magical mystery and, for some of us, the end of a rainbow.


From Delhi: Fly/Drive to Kullu. Drive on to Manali. Cross the Rohtang and take the diversion at Gramphoo to Chattru. Continue on to Spiti via Batal, Kunzum La, Losar and Kaza, Kibber is two hours from Kaza.

Hire jeep from Manali to Kibber/for self-driven vehicles, high suspension a must.

A longer drive-in from Shimla to Kibber via Rampur, Kalpa, tabo and Kaza is also a possibility.


July to September (depending on the opening of the higher passes)

Travel Restrictions

Permits for foreigners (Minimum four) required to be processed at the Deputy Commissioners Office, Kaza. Permits for Tso Moriri to be arranged to reach Karzog.

Good acclimatization a must for this trip. Take at least three overnight stops between Manali and Kibber.

Making arrangements through a reputed tour operator who will make all permit/transport arrangements besides taking care of all trekking logistics is recommended. Also, make sure you meet your trekking guide before you leave.

Where to stay

  • PWD guest houses at Chattru/Set up your own Camp.

  • PWD guest house at Losar/Set up your own camp.

  • Kaza-Hotel Skya’s Abode. Clean rooms with food available.

  • Kibber-Hotel Parang La. Setting up camp recommended.

  • Karzog- Set up your own camp.

Getting Out

Arrange transport to meet at Karzog for drive to Leh. Fly Leh to Delhi.


  • Delhi-Manali (6700 feet) 570 kilometers.

  • Manali-Chattru (11,670 feet) 70 kilometers.

  • Chattru-Losar (13,350 feet) 62 kilometers.

  • Losar-Kaza-(11,800 feet) 58 kilometers.

  • Karzog-Leh (11,500 feet) 226 kilometers.