Tourism in Ladakh has increased dramatically in recent years. What was once a destination only for foreigners or adventure addicts now receives hundreds of thousands of tourists each year. Someone told me a few days ago that Leh started to look like the second Manali now and it’s true. The effect of this tourist craze can also be seen in Zanskar. Perhaps not much yet, but the number of people visiting here has also started to increase. As a result, the availability of basic amenities is also improving. Finding a place to stay even in the most remote parts of Ladakh and Zanskar is now not so difficult. Telephone connectivity at these locations, however, still remains a challenge. We hope it will improve in the coming days as well, but until that happens, below is the current situation of mobile connectivity in the Zanskar valley.
To reach the Zanskar valley, you will first need to reach Kargil. You will follow the road to Padum via Sankoo, Panikhar, Prakachik and Rangdum. The stretch between Kargil and Rangdum is the Suru valley and the area after Rangdum is real Zanskar. Amenities are better in areas close to Kargil and the Suru Valley; and it starts to feel remote as you approach Padum. The condition of the road is also very good until Sankoo and it only deteriorates when you approach Padum.
Postpaid phones only
The first thing you need to remember here is that only postpaid connections work in the state of Jammu and Kashmir. It is not just Zanskar, but the entire state. It doesn’t matter which network you’re on; if your phone has a prepaid connection, it will be disabled as soon as you enter the state. The same logic applies to Zanskar as well. The only chance for your phone to work here is if you were carrying a postpaid.
Only BSNL / MTNL works in Zanskar
BSNL has the broadest coverage from J&K and is the only service provider whose connection can work in Zanskar. Other networks like Airtel or Vodafone only work in Srinagar or Leh City. However, a BSNL / MTNL connection will provide much broader coverage, but only if it is postpaid. I agree that voice quality will be poor and connectivity will be intermittent, but you will at least remain connected. Even if you were unable to make a call, you can at least send a text message. If you had a prepaid BSNL or MTNL phone, it will not work anywhere on J&K.
Mobile connectivity in Zanskar Valley
You will have full BSNL connectivity in Kargil, but you will be dead soon after starting your way to Padum. In Suru Valley, the chain goes back and forth through Sankoo, but will be completely father the rest of the way to Padum. Your phone will work again in Padum, but it will continue to die at regular intervals. The clarity of the voice will be very poor and sometimes the call may not be answered even if you were on the network. If you leave Padum for local sight seeing; as towards Zangla, for example, your phone will be dead again.
Pathetic is the word I will use to describe data connectivity in the Zanskar valley. You will get 2G data connectivity in Kargil and Padum, but it will actually be slower than 2G. Your only chance for a stable internet connection will be if your hotel is providing the same in the form of Wi-Fi. I’m sure that hotels in Kargil offer free Wi-Fi, but I’m not sure about Padum. The ones I stayed in were budget guest houses without wi-fi, but I heard that some guest houses started to taste the same.
Electricity is not really such a problem in the region. You will be able to charge all of your electronic devices in Kargil and Padum, but just to be on a safer side, bring a power bank, if possible; especially if you were planning on camping. Considering the remote nature of the region, electricity may not be available in Rangdum or Padum. A power bank will also be useful if you use your phone to click on photos and videos.
Hotels in Kargil have landlines that you can use to make calls if the phone is not working. There is a satellite phone facility in Padum that you can use in an emergency. I didn’t find (or search for) a phone in Rangdum, so I can’t really comment on it. Local people are also very useful in these places. Therefore, if your phone was not working, you can request the cell phone from the hotel owner. Obviously, you will have to pay for this, but at least you can make a call.
Inform your staff
Last but not least, for your peace of mind, you must inform your family of the above limitations. Inform them that you will be in areas where the phone may not work, so they don’t start to worry. A friend of mine did not tell his family about telephone connectivity and went to Ladakh only to discover that his father registered a missing FIR person at home when they were unable to find him for three days in a row. You must inform your family where you intend to be on what date and where your phone will not work. If something goes wrong, they will have at least an idea of their last known whereabouts. Also, whenever you can and can put your phone in your hands, call home and tell your parents that you were okay.