LADAKH -PAINTED MOUNTAINS, LUSH DESERTS
LADAKH -PAINTED MOUNTAINS, LUSH DESERTS
State Jammu & Kashmir
Location Ladakh is a high-altitude plateau, a cold desert in the trans-Himalayan eastern part of J&K, bordered to the north by Pakistan-occupied-Kashmir and to the east by Tibet
Distances for Leh 431 km E of Srinagar, 474 km N of Manali
Route from Srinagar NH1 D to Leh via Ganderbal, Sonamarg, Zoji La, Drass, Kargil, Mulbekh and Lamayuru Route from Manali SH to Leh via Rohtang Pass, Keylong, Baralacha La, Naki, Lachulung and Tanglang passes, Rumtse, Upshi and Thiksey
When to go Between June and late September, when old snow has melted enough to allow the passes to open, and fresh snow hasn't started. But winter flights make a snowy visit possible
It is imperative you give yourself at least one day of acclimatization after landing in Ladakh's capital Leh. Be prepared for mild headache or nausea (though everyone does not experience this). Even if you feel fine, rest for the first 24 hrs and take it easy during the next day's sightseeing. Protect against sunburn and keep some woollens for the night
• J&K Tourism
Tourist Reception Centre, Leh
Tourist Reception Centre
Residency Road, Sri nagar
Tel: 0194-2472644/449, 2455107
The Mall, Manali
STD codes Leh 01982, Srinagar 0194
Air Nearest airport: Leh Airport (6 km/20 mins) is connected to Delhi, Chandigarh, Sri nagar and Jammu in season. Taxi into town is around Rs 150-175
Rail Nearest railhead: Jammu Tawi (724 km/18-19 hrs). Proceed on NH1A to Srinagar (293 km/8 hrs) by deluxe bus (fare Rs 250 approx), shared taxi (Rs 500 per person) or full taxi (Rs 3,500-4,000). For Srinagar-Leh details, see Road below
Road Ladakh is connected to Delhi by two routes - via Srinagar-Zoji La-Kargil, and via Manali-Rohtang Pass-Baralacha La. Both these routes are open between June and October. After October, snow closes the high passes on these routes. Both drives, though long, are the most beautiful of road experiences. If driving, carry extra fuel as petrol pumps en route are few. Manali-Leh (474 km/2-day drive) In season, HPTDC (Tel: 01902-252116) runs a super deluxe service (dep: 11 am; night halt: 6/7 pm at Keylong). Dinner, breakfast and tented accommodation is included in the fare (Rs 2,000). Shared taxi (arr: same day) is Rs 1,500-1,700; full taxi Rs 20,000 (2 nights stay). Contact Manali Taxi Stand Tel: 01902-252450. Srinagar-
Leh (431 km/2-day drive). Most buses start at 8 am from Srinagar and halt over- night in Kargil. Buses (JKTDC Tel: 0194- 2455107) charge about Rs 707 per per- son. Shared taxis take 12 hrs and charge Rs 1 ,300-1 ,500 per person (no night halt at Kargil). Full taxis charge Rs 10,500 (with the option of a night halt at Kargil at no extra cost). For more info, contact Taxi Stand No.1, near Tourist Reception Centre, Srinagar; Tel: 0194-2452527. Bus and taxi bookings can be made at the JKTDC Tourist Reception Centre in Sri nagar
Much of what I love about Ladakh emerges from this terrain, this climate and this very remoteness. As in so many places, geography and nature define history as well as lifestyle. Scarcity of agricultural land (since, in the absence of rain, only melting glacial streams or the Indus waters can irrigate this mountain desert) means that houses are built clinging dramatically and photogenically to hillsides on top of the fields, so as to not waste productive land. Scarcity of resources like water means that people have to cooperate and share. Walking through the fields we can still see how the irrigation channels of melting glacial waters are used cooperatively by farmers. Each farmer blocks the channel with stones and waters her fields till sufficient, and then scrupulously removes the stones so that the water moves on to other fields downstream.
Scarcity of resources means that nothing is ever thrown. As Ladakh scholar Helena Norberg-Hodge wrote, "What cannot be eaten can be fed to animals, what cannot be used as fuel can fertilise the land .... Ladakhis patch their home- spun robes until they can be patched no more. When no amount of stitching can sustain a worn-out robe, it is packed with mud into a weak part of an irrigation channel to help prevent leakage .... Virtually all shrubs or bushes - what we would call 'weeds' - serve some purpose" (as fuel, fodder, roof material, fence material, dyes, basket weaving and so on).
There is literally no waste, wrote the scholar, and today, as I sit amid my polluted rivers, unmanageable urban garbage, depleting resources, global warming - I wonder what we've lost.
In Leh, we are walking in the Changspa area, away from the town centre and bazaar. We are at 11,500 ft - it is September and fiery autumn colours are setting in. Except for a couple of army vehicles, and a mule with a secret sorrow, we are pretty much alone for most of the walk. We've decided, very sensibly, to not walk down the main road that leads comfortably to the bazaar but to zigzag through the terraced fields. This means that we climb the rocks that demarcate field boundaries, cross a stream of water, all freshly melted, with trousers rolled up, graciously allow some donkeys right of way, and make friends with Tsering, all of two years old, who scowls determinedly into my camera. At some point we are just lost in the fields. The views of the snowy Stok Kangri Range are divine when foregrounded by the intense green crop. I can spend hours just looking at how the sunlight polishes the running water, how the light gives colour to the pebbles, how the music of the stream falls into the silent canvas of the oasis.
But we are hastening to see the documentary Ancient Futures made by scholar- activist Helena's NGO, on the socially- ecologically - economically - harmonized society that Ladakh used to be, and to some extent still is. We are struck by the changing psychological landscape of Ladakh that she draws up. In 1975, Helena had, while doing anthropological research in a village, asked a boy how many people he would call 'poor' among fellow villagers. He thought and said, "None." In their interdependent, self- sufficient, unwasteful ways, notions of sufficiency and sharing made sense but 'poverty' did not. Needless to say, all of Ladakh, especially Leh, where people are forced to earn their incomes in a few months of the tourist season, is not an innocent haven of such values. (The documentary film did go on to say that when Helena visited the same village after many years, after 'development' and tourism had come to Leh, the same boy told her, "Please do something for us, we are so poor.")
And yet. We are quite unable to separate the clarity of the air and the plenitude of the flowers and the peace of the whitewashed houses and the silence in which the rivulet gurgles and the way the light dances off colourful pebbles from the inherent beauty of these ways of living, whatever is left of them. It's the best reason to go to Ladakh.
The traveller who goes to Ladakh by road, whether from Sri nagar or from Manali, is introduced to the westernmost of Ladakh's defining features, the beautiful barrier that separates it from the rest of India: the Great Himalaya. This range makes Ladakh what it is, inasmuch as it is high enough to prevent the monsoon clouds from crossing over to this area, making it fall in the 'rain shadow', and thus making the terrain a 'mountain desert'.
From Manali, the route crosses four passes, of which Rohtang Pass is the baby at 13,051 ft; Baralacha La is 16,049 ft, and later, Lunglacha La (also known as Lachulung La) and Tanglang La are over 16,400 ft. The Lahaul area in Himachal Pradesh is a harbinger of the unsettling, stark treeless beauty to come. Later in the journey, these stark mountains become as if delicate watercolours of ochre, rust, pink, red, blue, purple ... shading off into each other. The campsite of Sarchu, where many buses halt for the night, brings you to Ladakh; even this dry, windy moonscape is a grazing area for Changpa nomads and their herds of sheep, goat and yak. Near Lunglacha La, which falls in the Zanskar Range, the twisted, tortured shapes of wind-eroded rocks that you see on both routes are particularly dramatic. Another striking feature of this journey are the Morey Plains, a 40-km-long stretch of flatness; even here the Changpa set up base camps.
Coming from Srinagar, the Zoji La (11,318 ft) is the marker of a dramatically changing landscape; on the Kashmir side, there is alpine beauty, and on the other side there is not a tree to be seen. It's just the Drass area of western Ladakh that gets some moisture through Zoji La and is snow-covered for months. It is said by some to be the coldest inhabited place after Siberia! Next comes the town of Kargil, hard to think of as a well- irrigated lush oasis now that cross-border hostilities have taken over. The Buddhist village of Mulbekh follows. The road goes through the Namik La and Fatu La, and then again to the settlement of Lamayuru (the best example of the Ladakhi phenomenon of village houses clinging to steep hillsides). The descent from here gives spectacular views of the road and its loops for a great distance below. Both journeys are incredibly exhilarating, and leave the unsuspecting senses a bit stunned.
The Great Himalaya runs in a roughly south-east to north-west direction, and nearly all the other primary features of Ladakh's geography follow the same direction, in repetitive, parallel lines. The next range is the Zanskar Range, parts of which you also cross while travelling in by road. Between the Great Himalaya and the Zanskar fall the Suru and Zanskar rivers, and their beautiful valleys. The Zanskar region is still a relatively less-known part of Ladakh, known more to trekkers than tourists. Here, Padum, the main town, is the base for trekking and explorations of monasteries such as Sani, Karsha or Phugtal. The Stok Kangri, a part of the Zanskar Range, is visible from Leh, painting the town's back- ground with grandeur and snow.
Roughly parallel, again in southeast- northwest axis, lies the heart of Ladakh, the area most familiar to non-Ladakhis: the Indus River and its valley, with gompas dotting its banks. The Indus emerges in western Tibet, from the northern face of Mount Kailash, enters Ladakh at its south-eastern border with Tibet at Demchok, and flows north through the region's middle, creating a cultural backbone for it. It also accepts the tribute of practically all rivers you'll hear of here: Suru, Zanskar, Shyok, Nubra.
The Indus, and the meltwater streams that flow into it, were the only means of irrigation for Ladakhis here, who settled in areas within its reach. They created those jewels of green fields, harvest crops, bright springtime and exquisite gold-and-orange palettes of autumn, poplars and willows, Buddhist traditions and monastery treasures, all bursting out of a brown canvas. From south to north, it is a litany of names: Hemis, Stakna, Thiksey, Stok, Shey, Leh, Spituk, Phiyang, Basgo, likir, Alchi, Ridzong, Lamayuru.
On the other side of the valley lies the Ladakh Range. It branches off into the Pangong Range, which you can see from the southern shore of the famous Pangong Tso lake. Finally, Ladakh's easternmost areas: to the north-east, the Nubra Valley and to the south-east, the crisscross system of hills with Ladakh's three great lakes. The Nubra region consists of the valleys of the Nubra and Shyok rivers, which meet here (to finally flow into the Indus). It's known for its postcard prettiness ... for its abundance of seabuckthorn; for the double-humped Bactrian camels; for sand dunes along the Shyok River; and Diskit, Hundar and Panamik villages here are known tourist spots.
In south-east Ladakh lies a continuation of Tibet's Changthang Plateau. This area is such an agglomerate of disorganised peaks, plateaus and ridges that meltwater here finds no proper slope to flow away, thus forming the beautiful saltwater lakes, Pangong Tso, Tso Moriri and Tso Kar, of which Pangong falls mostly into Tibet.
Gompa: A solitary place. Ladakh's gompas (Buddhist monasteries) are wonderful in simultaneously maintaining their aura of solitary contemplativeness and their attraction for tourists, especially at festival time. Central Ladakh is home to long-standing traditions of the Vajrayana form of Buddhism, particularly fascinating to visitors for its Tantra elements, vivid colourful art, mystical feel and erotic imagery.
We visit a few of these. Leh's Old Quarter and its tunnel-like passages lie in the shadow of the imposing nine-storey Palace of King Sengye Namgyal, and the Tsemo Gompa above it. Hemis (48 km south-east of Leh) is the most well known of Ladakh's gompas, since it has its annual festival in the summer when tourists can visit easily. But for our money, Hemis village and monastery, well set back from the highway, is best visited in a month like September, when the trees are golden and the wind dances along. Built in the 1630s, Hemis is Ladakh's biggest and richest monastery.
Thiksey (19 km south-east of Leh), built in the mid-15th century, is another large gompa, impressively sprawled out on a hillock above the village. The dark atmospheric main temple, like a large assembly hall, has old murals on the wall, mostly of scary-looking tantric deities, often in sexual poses. There are wooden bookracks holding ancient manuscripts and the mystical smell of ghee and incense is omnipresent. The roof offers spectacular views. You can also visit Stok Palace (close to Thiksey), the residence of the Namgyal dynasty since 1843, where a museum displays old thangkas, statues in bronze and gold, ornaments, and a sword twisted out of shape, it is said, by the legendary Tashi Namgyal himself!
Basgo (north-west of Leh) used to be a capital of a branch of Ladakh's Namgyal dynasty, and while its fortifications are now ruined, some lovely 15th-16th century murals can still be seen. Likir Gompa (60 km north-west of Leh) enjoys a lovely location, being well off the highway, and has a lovely collection of old thangkas, images and manuscripts. The present building dates to the 18th century. Alchi village (68 km west of Leh), with a population of a few hundreds, and its 11th-century chos-khor (religious enclave), is the jewel among Ladakh's gompas, with 12th century murals that were preserved (they were not painted over, nor diminished by soot from lamps) because for some reason active worship stopped here in the 16th century.
Travelling to practically any of these places, we happen on the most photogenic of green-gold views, and meet the cheeriest of smiles, and go deeper into the heart of an inimitable windy silence .... We agree that when we grow up, we want to become Ladakh.
WHERE TO STAY IN LEH
Oriental Guest House (Tel: 01982- 253153; Mobile: 09419178774; Tariff: Rs 700-1,650, with meals), known for rooms with lovely views, is in the Changspa area, next to the Shanti Stupa, a 20-min walk from the bazaar.
Leh boasts of a huge hotel with central heating, elevators, 24-hr room service and much besides - the Grand Dragon (Tel: 250786, 255866; Mobile: 09906986782; Tariff: Rs 5,500-10,000, with breakfast). Hotel Omasila (Tel: 252119, 255248; Tariff: Rs 3,470-4,900, with all meals) is also a well-run and beautiful place, about a lO-min walk from the bazaar en route to Changspa.
For sheer atmosphere and old-world charm, you can stay at the Sharnbha-La (Tel: 252607, 253500; Tariff: Rs 4,100- 7,500, with all meals), 1 km out of town; closes for winter. The rooms are freshly done up, while the building has the loveliest rich dark wooden feel to it. If looking for something near the bazaar and Leh Fort, there are many hotels in the Old Road and Fort Road areas, and many guest houses in Changspa that are cheap and hospitable but mostly closed in winter.
WHERE TO EAT IN LEH
Sitting at the well-named Leh View rooftop restaurant, we can sip a kahwa while gazing at the bazaar below. You can sit at any other rooftop restaurant too, such as La Terrasse opposite, and have your tea, beer, sandwich, pancake, roti- subzi, pizza, Kashmiri food, you name it .... These are all great places to sit and fatten and while away time beautifully.
Many bakeries and restaurants offer apple pies or lemon tarts or cinnamon rolls. Tibetan Kitchen, on Fort Road, gives wonderful mamas and chutney. Dreamland Restaurant, just near the bazaar, offers Continental chicken dishes, Kashmiri dishes and virgin cocktails. On the way to Changspa, Zen Garden, with its sound of running water, gives decent Thai food, pizzas and Israeli dishes too.
Oriental Guest House gives lovely homemade food (only to guests), Ladakhi pancakes for breakfast and soups, noodles and mamas for dinner, all veg.