“Kindness is Giving the Right of Way”, “Danger Lurks at Blind Curves”, “Drink and Drive, You Won’t Survive”, “Mountains are a Pleasure Only if You Drive With Leisure”, and “Speed Thrills But Kills”… these messages and many more like them appear on road signs throughout the magical Himalayan land called Ladakh. And amazingly, drivers on these roads do adhere to them by driving slowly and cautiously. Liza Linklater was thankful.
During our visit, I often felt as if I had been transported to another planet, or at least the moon. Located in the northwestern Indian state of Jammu-Kashmir (J&K), Ladakh is the peaceful part, the part that few people know about. It was August and the temperature was delightfully cool – in the ’20s. Ladakh provides a welcome respite from the heat and rains in the Indian plains further south, lying across the Himalayas from Kashmir.
The 75-minute-flight from New Delhi up into the Himalayas took us through rain clouds but every few minutes we could look down and see the magnificent, spectacular Himalayan vistas. We were headed for Leh, the capital of Ladakh. We circled around a rather arid valley until the landing strip appeared. It must be the highest airport in the world to be used regularly by jet aircraft. Because of the high winds that blow every afternoon, the flights are only made in the morning. And since it is such a difficult approach, there has to be clear visibility. Flights are often turned back or cancelled.
If you fly into Leh, you must heed the warnings about acclimatizing yourself to the altitude. Leh is situated at 3,505 meters. So it’s best to just go to your hotel room, lie down and relax for at least the first 24 hours. And continue to go easy after that for the next day or two.
When you finally get up and start looking around, you will find Leh to be a lovely town ringed by snow-capped mountains. It is geared for tourists even though most only come during a two- to three-month period. Ladakh has only been open to tourists since 1974. At present, only about 4,000-5,000 visitors arrive each season. Hotels, guesthouses, shops and restaurants have been built to accommodate these visitors. As far as buying souvenirs like Pashima shawls, Jamawar (paisley) shawls, Tibetan jewelry etc., the prices in Leh are quite high.
This whole region is a paradise for trekkers. The sun is very powerful at this altitude and sunscreen is a must. The temperature changes dramatically, even on a warm day when the sun goes behind a cloud. Always carry a sweater.
Ladakh is the largest district in India, but it is also the least populated region. Leh is located in a valley just north of the Indus Valley. As soon as you leave the airport you become aware of the fact that Leh is of strategic importance to India. The military is highly visible, traveling to and from the nearby borders with Pakistan and China. This region saw little intervention from the outside world until the armies of India, China and Pakistan turned Ladakh into the highest battleground in the world.
But for centuries Ladakh was at the crossroads of major trade routes. Traders brought in tea, tobacco and minerals and took out spices, saffron, silks, brocades and shawls. Ladakhi historical records go back to 400 BC when the kingdoms of Tibet and Ladakh were established. Tibetan interest in Ladakh dates back to the 7th century AD.
The Tibetan influence also extends to Leh’s architecture. The seven-storied Leh Palace looks remarkably like the larger Potala in Lhasa, Tibet, as does the Thikse Gompa (monastery) outside of town. The Leh Palace was, in fact, the prototype for the Potala.
Ladakh is India’s highest plateau at heights of 5,300 to 5,800 meters and is one of the reasons for the dry and desert-like conditions. The main settlements are strung along the Indus River. Green cultivable oases appear beside rivers that flow from far-away glaciers or from melting snow.
Frost, snow and sleet start in September and last until May. Temperatures in July and August can go as high as 40 degrees C.
The delightful, friendly, beautiful people of Ladakh are related to the Tibetans, and there are many Tibetan refugees living there as well. Today, in many ways, Ladakh is probably much more Tibetan than Tibet itself. Many people still dress in traditional Tibetan clothing, especially the women who sport long dresses with heavy coral and turquoise jewelry, sometimes winged hats, and wear their thick, black hair in two long braids tied together at the bottom. Until the 10th century, Ladakh was actually regarded as a province of Tibet, with the Tibetan, Lamaist form of Buddhism as the main religion. Today, Muslims and Christians also live here.
People smile and greet you with the all-encompassing word ‘jule’ (pronounced ‘Jullay’). It will be the one Ladakhi word you will definitely learn. You’ll use it all the time as it means “Hello, Goodbye, Please, Thank You and How are you?” Throughout the Himalayan region, weather-beaten, whitewashed, reddish or brownish structures seem to be carved out of the landscape – known here as gompas or monasteries. Many gompas, like the one at Thikse, are perched high above the surrounding villages. Medieval monasteries are also seen standing alone atop hills, on cliffs, or overlooking precipices.
Mound-like structures called chortens or stupas (which literally means “the receptacle of relics”, monuments holding religious relics, manuscripts, and often ashes of head lamas or saints) often led the way to the monasteries. Prayer flags are seen everywhere fluttering in the wind breaking the silence of the rugged landscape.
There are several gompas to explore close to Leh, but the most visited one is at Hemis, 44 km south of Leh on the Leh-Manali road. It houses one of the largest thangkas (colorful religious paintings) in the world. Exhibited once every 12 years, it will be shown next in 2004. Built in the 1630s, it is the largest and wealthiest monastery in Ladakh. Hemis is known for its two-day annual festival, which is held in the summer featuring the colorful Cham, masked dances. Be sure to also visit the Thikse Gompa about 17 km south of Leh, and the Spituk Gompa close to the end of the Leh airport runway.
The most remarkable excursion we took was into the Nubra Valley, which long ago was on the route between Tibet and Turkistan. A special permit is required but doesn’t take more than a day to be obtained. It took just five hours from Leh to Diskit and we stopped several times. It is approximately 122 kilometers from Leh to the end of the line for foreigners in the valley.
To access the Nubra Valley, we crossed the Khardung-la Pass, the highest motorable road in the world at 18,380 feet (5,606 meters). It was cold at the top and we spotted snow beside the road in August. Journeying along the switchback road with its hairpin curves one can’t help but be overwhelmed by the immense scale of everything; it makes you feel very small. It really is ‘Buddha’s Country’ at the rooftop of the world.
Every vehicle we met was passed with centimeters to spare. Luckily there is not much traffic; we met a vehicle about once every 15 minutes – military convoys, (which don’t like to move over), transport trucks, Tata 4×4 taxis, and the odd bus.
The sayings painted on the road signs really do make the drivers think twice about what they doing. Gyalpo, our 20-year-old driver, seemed to know every turn in the road. We passed Nepalese work crews who continuously service the road by pounding boulders into gravel – their incredibly hard lives are right out of a Dickens novel.
As you travel along gazing at the awe-inspiring vistas, the colors of the mountains change from banded hues of green, brown, gold, to pink and mauve. The word ‘Nubra‘ means green and the willows and poplars stand tall beside the river valleys and fields making the area very green indeed, especially in contrast to the stark barrenness of the mountains on all sides. This fertile valley is also known as the ‘Valley of Flowers”.
The fast-moving Shyok and Nubra rivers flow through the wide valley. We followed the split in the road to the left along the Shyok River to the village of Diskit. I quite literally mean along the river, as the road continues along a dry, wide riverbed for about three kilometres. We stayed at the Olthang Guest House, one of about three guesthouses in the valley. The manager told us that he had his first guests in 1994 and they numbered 14. He figures he gets about 500 guests a year now and says there are about 3000-4000 guests in the whole valley every year. His last guests usually depart by the end of October at the latest.
The 350-year-old Diskit Gompa is the oldest in the valley. It is also the biggest with about 70 friendly monks, a couple of whom led us into the kitchen for a spot of hot, salted butter tea. Set on a hill above the village, it is a truly magical, spiritual place. Looking out over the valley, one can’t help but think of the harshness of life here during the winter months.
From Diskit, be sure to follow the sand dunes and boulder-strewn route to Hunder, which ends at a roadblock with a sign explicitly stating “No Visitors Permitted Beyond this Point”. Only locals and military vehicles pass on their way to the Line of Control (the glacier that India and Pakistan have been fighting over for several decades).
Backtracking along the river from Diskit to the divide in the road, we then traveled north to Panamik, which is the farthest village that can be visited on that side of the river. Famous for its hot springs, Panamik was both the first, or the last, stop along the ancient trade route between Ladakh and Central Asia. We stayed in the village of Sumur with its delightful, traditionally clad villagers. Our lovely guesthouse surrounded by hollyhocks was opened to visitors in 1996.
Ladakh is a land like no other – it’s otherworldly. It retains an aura of the exotic and the forbidden. It’s like going to the moon, and it’s definitely the last frontier. We backtracked to Leh along the desolate, but magnificent route dotted with its road signs that keep one alert and lift one’s spirit.
And this sign best sums up the whole enchanting Ladakh experience – “Be Prepared and Expect the Unexpected”.
How To Get There
» BANGKOK TO DELHI: Thai International (Mon, Tues, Sat and Sun, B15,950 return)
» Air India (Wed, Thurs, Sat and Sun B14,700 return)
» Indian Airlines (daily, B14,500 return)
» DELHI TO LEH: Jet Air (daily, B10,062 return)
» Indian Airlines (Tues, Thurs, Sat, Sun, B10,062 return) Daily bus from Delhi.
Where To Stay
» Gypsy’s Panorama Hotel Like all hotels in Leh, the rooms are quite basic, but central heating allows the hotel to stay open all year round.
» Rooms with heating: US$38-48
» Rooms without heating: $US17
» Hotel Dragon: Bright and nicely decorated rooms. US$18-25
» Book hotel reservations in advance and be sure to do this during festival times.
Where To Eat
» Most hotels have restaurants that offer a good range of food, though some are likely to be closed in the winter.
» In the Main Bazaar area, you’ll find several great places to eat such as Himalaya Café,Wok Tibetan Kitchen (also offering Japanese food)
» La Terrace is great for breakfasts or snacks.
» World Garden Café is a nice place to chill out, while the Mona Lisa Bar & Restaurant serves pizzas and Ladakhi bread with falafel.