As you approach LEH for the first time, via the sloping sweep of dust and pebbles that divide it from the floor of the Indus Valley, you’ll have little difficulty imagining how the old trans-Himalayan traders must have felt as they plodded in on the caravan routes from Yarkhand and Tibet: a mixture of relief at having crossed the mountains in one piece, and anticipation of a relaxing spell in one of central Asia’s most scenic towns. Spilling out of a side valley that tapers north towards eroded snow-capped peaks and looks south towards the majestic Stok-Kangri massif (6120m), the Ladakhi capital sprawls from the foot of a ruined Tibetan-style palace – a maze of mud brick and concrete flanked on one side by cream-coloured desert and on the other by a swathe of lush, irrigated farmland.
Leh only became regional capital in the seventeenth century, when Sengge Namgyal shifted his court here from Shey, 15km southeast, to be closer to the head of the Khardung La–Karakoram corridor into China. The move paid off: within a generation the town had blossomed into one of the busiest markets on the Silk Road. Leh’s prosperity, managed mainly by the Sunni Muslim merchants whose descendants live in its labyrinthine old quarter, came to an abrupt end with the closure of the Chinese border in the 1950s. Only after the Indo-Pak wars of 1965 and 1971, when India rediscovered the hitherto forgotten capital’s strategic value, did its fortunes begin to look up. Today, khaki-clad jawans (soldiers) and their families from the nearby military and air force bases are the mainstay of the local economy in winter, when foreign visitors, to whom the region was opened up in 1974, are few and far between. Leh has more than doubled in size since the advent of tourism and is a far cry from the sleepy Himalayan town of the early 1970s. Many of the provision stores and old-style outfitters on the main street have been squeezed out by Kashmiri handicraft shops, internet cafés, art emporiums and Tibetan restaurants.
The abiding impression of Leh, however, remains that of a lively yet laid-back place to unwind after a long bus journey. Attractions in and around the town itself include the former palace and Namgyal Tsemo gompa, perched amid strings of prayer flags above the narrow dusty streets of the old quarter. A short walk north across the fields, the small monastery at Sankar harbours accomplished modern Tantric murals and a thousand-headed Avalokitesvara deity. Leh is also a good base for longer day-trips out into the Indus Valley. Among the string of picturesque villages and gompas within reach by bus are Shey, site of a derelict seventeenth-century palace, and the spectacular Tikse gompa.
With the mighty hulk of the palace looming to the north, it’s virtually impossible to lose your bearings in Leh. The broad main bazaar runs north to south through the heart of town, dividing the labyrinthine old town and nearby polo ground from the greener and more spacious residential districts of Karzoo and Suki to the west. Fort Road, the other principal thoroughfare, turns west off the main street and then winds downhill past the taxi rank and a host of hotels, restaurants and shops, towards the Air India office on the southern outskirts.
As Leh is 3505m above sea level, some travellers, and especially those who arrive by plane from Delhi, experience mild altitude sickness. The best way to avoid the symptoms – persistent headaches, dizziness, insomnia, nausea, loss of appetite or shortness of breath – is to rest for at least 48 hours on arrival. Drink 3–4 litres of water a day, avoid alcohol, and don’t exert yourself.
Chortens and mani walls
Chortens and mani walls
Among the more visible expressions of Buddhism in Ladakh are the chess-pawn-shaped chortens at the entrance to villages and monasteries. These are the Tibetan equivalent of the Indian stupa – large hemispherical burial mounds-cum-devotional objects, prominent in Buddhist ritual since the third century BC. Made of mud and stone (now also concrete), many chortens were erected as acts of piety by Ladakhi nobles, and like their southern cousins, they are imbued with mystical powers and symbolic significance: the tall tapering spire, normally divided into thirteen sections, represents the soul’s progression towards nirvana, while the sun cradled by the crescent moon at the top stands for the unity of opposites, and the oneness of existence and the universe. Some contain sacred manuscripts that, like the chortens, wither and decay in time, illustrating the central Buddhist doctrine of impermanence. Those enshrined in monasteries, however, generally made of solid silver and encrusted with semiprecious stones, contain the ashes or relics of revered rinpoches (incarnate lamas). Always pass a chorten in a clockwise direction: the ritual of circumambulation mimics the passage of the planets through the heavens and is believed to ward off evil spirits. Look out for the giant, brightly painted specimen between the bus station and Leh bazaar.
A short way downhill from the big chorten, near the radio station, stands an even more monumental symbol of devotion. The 500-metre mani wall, erected by King Deldan Namgyal in 1635, is one of several at important religious sites around Ladakh. Ranging from a couple of metres to over a kilometre in length, the walls are made of hundreds of thousands of stones, each inscribed with prayers or sacred mantras – usually the invocation Om Mani Padme Hum: “Hail to the Jewel in the Lotus”. It goes without saying that such stones should never be removed and visitors should resist the urge to climb onto the walls to have photographs taken.