LADAKH (La-Dags – “land of high mountain passes”) is India’s most remote and sparsely populated region, a high-altitude desert cradled by the Karakoram and Great Himalaya ranges and crisscrossed by myriad razor-sharp peaks and ridges. Variously described as “Little Tibet” or “the last Shangri-La”, the culturally and administratively separate area is one of the last enclaves of Mahayana Buddhism, which has been the principal religion for nearly a thousand years. This is most evident in Ladakh’s medieval monasteries: perched on rocky hilltops and clinging to sheer cliffs, these gompas are both repositories of ancient wisdom and living centres of worship.
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 driveable pass in the world, Khardung La, lies the valley of Nubra, where sand dunes carpet the valley floor.
Southeast of Leh, the Indus Valley broadens to form a fertile river basin. Among the spectacular Buddhist monuments lining the edges of the flat valley floor are Shey, site of a ruined palace and giant brass Buddha, and the stunning monastery of Tikse. South of Stok, Matho gompa is more famous for its winter oracle festivals than its art treasures, but is well worth a visit, if only for the superb views from its roof terrace. Further south still, continue to Hemis, Ladakh’s wealthiest monastery and the venue for one of the region’s few summer religious festivals. To side-step your fellow tourists without spending a night away from Leh, head up the austerely beautiful tributary valley back on the opposite side of the river from Hemis to the gompas of Chemrey and Thak Thok, the latter built around a fabled meditation cave. East of Thak Thok, the road crosses the Chang La and then veers east to the high mountain lake of Pangong Tso, most of which lies in Tibet. Far more relaxing and inviting is the vast wilderness of Rupshu, with trekking possibilities around the shores of Tso Moriri, in the deep south. Permits are required for these three areas.
Of the many gompas accessible by road west of Leh, only Spitok, piled on a hilltop at the end of the airport runway, and Phyang, which presides over one of Ladakh’s most picturesque villages, can be comfortably visited on day-trips from the capital. The rest, including Likkir and the temple complex at Alchi, with its wonderfully preserved eleventh-century murals, are usually seen en route to or from Kargil. One of the great landmarks punctuating the former caravan route is the monastery of Lamayuru.
Far beyond the reach of the monsoons, Ladakh receives little snow, especially in the valleys, and even less rain (just 100mm 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, climate change has meant even 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.