Ladakh (La-Dags – “land of high mountain passes”) is mainland 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”, and culturally and administratively separate from the rest of India, this area is one of the last enclaves of Mahayana Buddhism, which has been its 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.
Set in a sublime landscape 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. 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 all 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, 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.