The culturally and administratively separate region of LADAKH (La-Dags – “land of high mountain passes”), variously described as “Little Tibet” or “the last Shangri-La”, is one of the last enclaves of Mahayana Buddhism, which has been the principal religion for nearly a thousand years, now brutally suppressed by the Chinese in its native Tibet. Except near the transition zone into Kashmir the outward symbols of Buddhism are everywhere: strings of multicoloured prayer flags flutter from the rooftops of houses, while bright prayer wheels and whitewashed chortens (the regional equivalent of stupas) guard the entrances to even the tiniest settlements. More mysterious still are Ladakh’s medieval monasteries. Perched on rocky hilltops and clinging to sheer cliffs, gompas are both repositories of ancient wisdom and living centres of worship. Their gloomy prayer halls and ornate shrines harbour remarkable art treasures: giant brass Buddhas, thangkas, libraries of antique Tibetan manuscripts, weird musical instruments and painted walls that writhe with fierce Tantric divinities. This is India’s most remote and sparsely populated region, a high-altitude desert cradled by the Karakoram and Great Himalaya ranges and criss-crossed by myriad razor-sharp peaks and ridges.
The highest concentration of monasteries is in the Indus Valley near Leh, the region’s capital. Surrounded by sublime landscapes and crammed with hotels, guesthouses and restaurants, this atmospheric little town, a staging post on the old Silk Route, is most visitors’ point of arrival and an ideal base for side trips. North of Leh, across the highest drivable pass in the world – Khardung La, lies the valley of Nubra, where sand dunes carpet the valley floor in stark contrast to the towering crags of the Karakoram Range. It is also possible to visit the great wilderness around the lake of Tso Moriri in Rupshu, southeast of Leh, and to glimpse Tibet from the shores of Pangong Tso in the far east of Ladakh. For these areas you will, however, need a permit. West of Leh, beyond the windswept Fatu La and Namika La passes, Buddhist prayer flags peter out as you approach the predominantly Muslim district of Kargil. Ladakh’s second largest town, at the mouth of the breathtakingly beautiful Suru Valley, marks the halfway stage of the journey to or from Srinagar, and is the jumping-off point for Zanskar, the vast wilderness in the far south of the state that forms the border with Lahaul in
Far beyond the reach of the monsoons, Ladakh receives little snow, especially in the valleys, and even less rain (just four inches per year). Only the most frugal methods enable its inhabitants to farm the thin sandy soil, frozen solid for eight months of the year and scorched for the other four. In recent years, global warming has meant drier winters with even less snow; the consequent loss of snow-melt has put pressure on traditional farming and irrigation, resulting in a real fear of drought. Two main “highways” connect Ladakh with the rest of India: the legendary Srinagar–Leh road and the route up from Manali, almost 500km south. These two, plus the rough road from Kargil to Padum in Zanskar, also link the majority of Ladakh’s larger settlements with the capital. Bus services along the main Indus Valley highway are frequent and reliable, but grow less so the further away you get from Leh. To reach off-track side-valleys and villages within a single day, it is much easier to splash out on a jeep taxi – either a Gypsy or a Tata Sumo – available in Kargil and Leh. The alternative, and more traditional way to get around the region, of course, is by trekking.Read More
- Southeast of Leh
North of Leh: Nubra Valley
North of Leh: Nubra Valley
Until 1994, the lands north of Leh were off-limits to tourists and had been unexplored by outsiders since the nineteenth century. Now, the breathtaking Nubra Valley, unfolding beyond the world’s highest stretch of drivable road as it crosses the Khardung La (5602m), can be visited with a seven-day permit, which gives you enough time to explore the stark terrain and trek out to one or two gompas. The valley’s mountain backbone looks east to the Nubra River and west to the Shyok River, which meet amid silver-grey sand dunes and boulder fields. To the north and east, the mighty Karakoram Range marks the Indian border with China and Pakistan. In the valley it’s relatively mild, though dust storms are common, whipping up sand and light debris in choking clouds above the broad riverbeds.
Before the region passed into the administrative hands of Leh, Nubra’s ancient kings ruled from a palace in Charasa, topping an isolated hillock opposite Sumur, home to the valley’s principal monastery. Further up the Nubra River, the hot springs of Panamik, once welcomed by footsore traders, are blissfully refreshing after all day on a bumpy bus. By the neighbouring Shyok River, Diskit, surveyed by a hillside gompa, lies just 7km from Hundur, known for its peculiar high-altitude double-humped Bactrian camels.
The route north to Nubra, a steep and rough road that forces painful groans from buses and trucks, keeps Leh in sight for three hours before crossing the Khardung La, and ploughing down more gently towards the distant Karakoram Range. Due to its strategic importance as the military road to the battlefields of the Siachen Glacier, the road to Nubra is kept open all year round but conditions can be treacherous at any time.
- West of Leh
Walled in by the Great Himalayan Divide, ZANSKAR, literally “Land of White Copper”, has for decades exerted the allure of Shangri-La on visitors to Ladakh. The region’s staggering remoteness, extreme climate and distance from the major Himalayan trade routes has meant that the successive winds of change that have blown through the Indus Valley to the north had little impact here. The annual influx of trekkers and a drivable road have certainly quickened the pace of development, but away from the main settlement of Padum, the Zanskaris’ way of life has altered little since the sage Padmasambhava passed through in the
The nucleus of the region is a Y-shaped glacial valley system drained by three main rivers: the Stot (or Doda) and the Tsarap (or Lingit) join and flow north as the Zanskar. Lying to the leeward side of the Himalayan watershed, the valley sees a lot more snow than central Ladakh. Even the lowest passes remain blocked for seven or eight months of the year, while midwinter temperatures can drop to a bone-numbing minus 40°C. Fourteen thousand or so tenacious souls subsist in this bleak and treeless terrain – among the coldest inhabited places on the planet – muffled up for half the year inside their smoke-filled whitewashed crofts, with a winter’s-worth of fodder piled on the roof.
Until the end of the 1970s, anything the resourceful Zanskaris could not produce for themselves (including timber for building) had to be transported into the region over 4000- to 5000-metre passes, or, in midwinter, carried along the frozen surface of the Zanskar from its confluence with the Indus at Nimmu – a ten- to twelve-day round trip that’s still the quickest route to the Srinagar–Leh road from Padum. Finally, in 1980, a drivable dirt track was blasted down the Suru and over Pensi La into the Stot valley. Landslides and freak blizzards permitting (Pensi La can be snowbound even in August), the bumpy journey from Kargil to Padum can now be completed in as little as ten hours.
Most visitors come to Zanskar to trek. Numerous trails wind their way north from Padum to central Ladakh, west to Kishtwar and south to neighbouring Lahaul – all long, hard hikes. Only a handful of Zanskar’s widely scattered gompas and settlements lie within striking distance of the road. The rest are hidden away in remote valleys, reached after days or weeks of walking. Improved communications may yet turn out to be a mixed blessing for Zanskar. While the road undoubtedly brought a degree of prosperity to Padum, it has also forced significant changes upon the rest of the valley – most noticeably a sharp increase in tourist traffic – whose long-term impact on the region’s fragile ecology and traditional culture has yet to be fully realized. Increased tourism has, in fact, done little to benefit the locals financially, with agencies in Leh, Manali, Srinagar and even Delhi pocketing the money paid by trekking groups. Zanskaris, weary of seeing their region come second to Kargil, have been campaigning for years for a sub-hill council status with more control over development. Buddhist concerns have also been heightened in the face of state government mismanagement and occasional communal tensions with their Muslim neighbours. There has been some outside aid emerging – one excellent initiative is the Dutch-based Stichting Zanskar Scholen foundation (wwww.zanskarscholen.com), which equips some of the impoverished state and monastery schools.
Restricted areas and permits
Restricted areas and permits
Parts of Ladakh are still inaccessible to the casual tourist, but with the easing of tensions along the border between India and China, much of this incredible land, once hidden behind the political veil of the “Inner Line”, has now been opened up. Three areas in particular are now firm favourites with travellers: the Nubra Valley bordering the Karakoram Range to the north of Leh; the area around Pangong Tso, the lake to the east of Leh; and the region of Rupshu with the lake of Tso Moriri, to the southeast of Leh. Both Indian and foreign visitors need permits to visit these areas. In theory, these are only issued to groups of at least four people accompanied by a guide, and only through a local tour operator. However, in practice travel agents are generally happy to issue permits to solo individuals travelling independently, though you’ll have three imaginary friends (usually people applying at the same time) listed on the permit to bump up the numbers. As long as your name and passport number are on the permit, the checkpoints are quite relaxed about how many of you there are.
Permits are issued by the District Magistrate’s Office in Leh but the office now only deals through Leh’s many tour operators, who charge a fee – usually around Rs50–100 per head. As some of the areas in question (such as Pangong Tso) are served by infrequent public transport, you may well find yourself using a tour operator anyway, in which case they will include your permit in the package. You will need two photocopies of the relevant pages of your passport and visa. Provided you apply in the morning, permits are usually issued on the same day. Once you have your permit, usually only valid for a maximum period of seven days, make at least five copies before setting off, as checkpoints often like to keep a copy when you report in. They may also occasionally spot-check to see the original copy. If you go on an organised trip, however, the driver takes care of all this and you may never even handle your permit.
Festivals in Ladakh
Festivals in Ladakh
Most of Ladakh’s Buddhist festivals, in which masked chaam dance dramas are performed by lamas in monastery courtyards, take place in January and February, when roads into the region are snowbound. This works out well for the locals, for whom the festivals relieve the tedium of the relentless winter, but it means that few outsiders get to experience some of the northern Himalayas’ most vibrant and fascinating spectacles. Recently, however, a few of the larger gompas around Leh have followed the example of Hemis, and switched their annual festivals to the summer to attract tourists. The tourist office in Leh produces a listings booklet called Ladakh, giving dates for forthcoming years.
Gompas that hold their chaams (dance festivals) in winter or spring include Matho (mid-Feb to mid-March), Spitok (mid-Jan), Tikse (late Oct to mid-Nov) and Diskit (mid-Feb to early March) in Nubra. Other important festivals in Ladakh include Losar (the Tibetan/Ladakhi New Year), which falls any time between mid-December and early January.
July 10–11, 2011; June 29–30, 2012; June 18–19, 2013.
Karsha Gustor, Zanskar:
July 27–28, 2011; July 15–16, 2012; July 6–7, 2013.
Thak Thok Tsechu
Aug 8–9, 2011; July 28–29, 2012; July 18–19, 2013.
Sani Nasjal, Zanskar:
Aug 12–13, 2011; Aug 1–2, 2012; July 21–21, 2013.
July 28–29, 2011; July 16–17, 2012; July 6–7, 2013.
Festival of Ladakh
Sept 1–15. This popular J&K Tourism–sponsored two-week event, held principally in Leh, is designed to extend the tourist season, featuring archery contests, polo matches, Bactrian camels from Nubra and traditional Ladakhi dance accompanied by some tedious speeches.
Trekking in Ladakh and Zanskar
Trekking in Ladakh and Zanskar
The ancient footpaths that crisscross Ladakh and Zanskar provide some of the most inspiring trekking in the Himalayas. Threading together remote Buddhist villages and monasteries, cut off in winter behind high passes whose rocky tops bristle with prayer flags, nearly all are long, hard and high – but never dull. Whether you make all the necessary preparations yourself, or pay an agency to do it for you, Leh is the best place to plan a trek; the best time to trek is from June to September.
Trekking independently is straightforward if you have a copy of Trekking in Ladakh (see below), don’t mind haggling and are happy to organize the logistics yourself. To find ponies and guides, head for the Tibetan refugee camp at Choglamsar, 3km south of Leh. Count on paying around Rs300 per horse and Rs200 per donkey each day – two people trekking through the Markha Valley for example would pay around $30 each for the entire week. By contrast, a package trek sold by a trekking agent in Leh will cost around $50 per day, and more if your group is less than four people.
You can rent equipment, including high-quality tents, sleeping bags, sleeping mats and duck-down jackets, either through your chosen agency or at places like Frontier Adventure Company, across from the taxi stand on Fort Road (T01982/253011), or Spiritual Trek, Changspa Lane (T01982/251701, [email protected]). Both also act as trek operators, supplying guides, porters, transport and food. Expect to pay around Rs100–150 a day for a tent, Rs80–100 for a sleeping bag and Rs40–50 for a gas stove; if you’re intending to climb Stok-Kangri you may need to dish out Rs50 for an ice axe. Independent trekkers might consider buying Indian equipment in the bazaar, which could be resold.
Minimize your impact in culturally and ecologically sensitive areas by being as self-reliant as possible, especially with food and fuel. Buying provisions along the way puts an unnecessary burden on the villages’ subsistence-oriented economies, and encourages strings of unsightly “tea shops” (often run by outsiders) to sprout along the trails. Always burn kerosene, never wood – a scarce and valuable resource. Refuse should be packed up, not disposed of along the route, no matter how far from the nearest town you are, and plastics retained for recycling at the Ecology Centre in Leh. Always bury your faeces and burn your toilet paper afterwards. Finally, do not defecate in the dry-stone huts along the trails; local shepherds use them for shelter during snow storms. For more details about environmental issues in Ladakh, see p.495.
An excellent book covering everything you need to know to undertake an expedition in the region is Trailblazer’s Trekking in Ladakh by Charlie Loram, on sale in bookshops in Leh.