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
Himachal Pradesh.

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.

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  • Leh
  • Southeast of Leh
  • North of Leh: Nubra Valley
  • West of Leh
  • Zanskar
  • Restricted areas and permits
  • Festivals in Ladakh
  • Trekking in Ladakh and Zanskar