A far cry from the relentlessly bustling, grimy streets of India’s cities, and unrecognisable from the verdant green, harmonious calm of Goa and Kerala in the South, Ladakh is a slice of India rarely seen.
Inhospitable for over half the year, the Ladakh region sits in the north-eastern corner of the country’s most northerly state Jammu and Kashmir, which borders China and Tibet to the north-east and Pakistan to the north-west. No surprise then that the region’s borders are heavily guarded, and though Ladakh is relatively safe, the area of Kashmir further north has a history marred with frequent military clashes, and remains volatile, whilst the Siachen glacier region is an active military zone. With less than 300,000 people spread over 33,554 square miles, the area is India’s most sparsely populated region, and is characterised by a distinctly laid-back, Buddhist culture, markedly different from the rest of India. With a rugged landscape and mild summer climate, Ladakh is both a fantastic getaway when the rest of India gets too much, and a unique and interesting destination in its own right.
There are frequent flights to Leh from several major Indian cities. By far the most exhilarating way to reach the region, however, is along the Manali-Leh highway, the world’s second highest road. But, be warned: it ain’t for the faint-hearted. From Delhi, we took a 6-hour train to Kalka and then another 6-hour train which winds up through the mountains to Shimla. Another overnight bus-ride takes you to Manali where it’s easy to find a jeep to do the journey to Leh. You can take the bus but, frankly, I wouldn’t recommend it.
From Manali, a pretty village in the green foothills of the Himalayas, the journey takes two days and ends up 500kms north in Leh, Ladakh’s capital – a staggering 3505m above sea level. It’s certainly an experience worth having, but the combination of Indian driving and a disconcerting lack of barriers on the windy mountain roads makes for a nail-biting trip. Rather alarmingly, our driver was suffering with altitude sickness and kept momentarily blacking out, reminding me to ‘grab the wheel’ if he fainted. On the plus side, he did own the full Bob Marley collection which blared most of the way, so, you know, swings and roundabouts.
The scenery is breathtakingly beautiful. The road is only open between June and October, and by this time the landscape is a vast expanse of barren, snow-capped mountainous and deep canyons with rivers running through it. There’s the odd house or tiny settlement along the way, but the most people you’ll see are at the numerous rest-stops where drinks and snacks are sold. There are no toilets though – you’ll have to bare your bum at the side of the road – not so bad higher up where you can hide behind a mound of snow, but pretty embarrassing in the open, barren expanses lower down. Further up, the journey becomes treacherous in a different way as you hit the snow. We got stuck for several hours at one point behind a bus that was stuck in a deep puddle, and as we wrapped ourselves up and braced ourselves for a gruelling 12-mile, uphill hike across the snowy landscape (just as the sun was going down), a stroke of luck meant the bus was free and we were on our way again. If you can put your nerves on hold and be intrepid for a couple of days I reckon the highway’s an experience not to miss. I flew back down, though.
What to do
Leh is a laid-back, homely town which serves as a chilled-out haven for travellers and tourists. By the time I arrived I’d spent several months in India and my senses were in serious need of some respite – which Leh provides in spades. The streets are quiet and regularly empty, and don’t be surprised if it takes you several days to get onto the internet or get a phone connection. The pace of life is slow, and lazy days are inevitable. You can spend lazy days in Tibetan cafés aplenty – they serve mouth-watering food (try the mutton momos) and the staff will be happy for you to stay as long as you like.
Alternatively, wander around the market, or simply head out of town for a few minutes to come across breathtaking scenery. For many, though, Leh serves as a practical base for a range of outdoor activities such as trekking, cycling, mountain climbing, mountaineering and canoeing, and since tourism is a vital source of income for Ladakh’s inhabitants, there are numerous companies offering guided tours and treks (make sure you pick a reputable one). One of our highlights was a trip to Pengong Lake, which lies 30% in India and 70% in China. Tso Moriri Lake (pictured above) is stunningly beautiful – with snow-fringed desert mountains to die for, it is still inhabited by nomadic herders. If the outdoors isn’t really your thing or you want to stay closer to Leh, there are several things to see close by: namely the numerous Buddhist monasteries or gompas – several of which (including Tikse, pictured above) are still in use today.
We arrived at Tikse at lunch time when the monastery was closed, but a kind monk gave us some saffron tea until they re-opened again. Tourism has brought the monks mixed blessings: in peak season tourists disturb the peace necessary for meditation, but tourism also provides the cash-flow necessary to refurbish the site, originally built in the fifteenth century. The new Maitreya Temple, which displays impressive murals and a fourteen-metre gold-faced Buddha-to-come, is the latest example. If you’re lucky you’ll find Tikse quiet and relaxing, and the steep walk up to the prayer flags is worth it for the stunning panoramic views of the mountains at the top. If you’re here in mid-July, I would highly recommend the Hemis festival – one of the few which takes place in summer, where tourists and locals come together in huge crowds for the two-day celebrations.
If you’re lucky you can indulge in some delicious local specialities which the town’s people knock up especially to share around. Keen to avoid the traveller cliché, I turned my nose up at first when my friend suggested a yoga course – but if you’re going to do it anywhere you should do it here: with its fresh mountain air, abundance of hippies and (so I’m told) some of the best schools in India, Leh is the perfect place for some relaxation and rejuvenation. And if that doesn’t tempt you, our flexi teacher had us in hysterics all week.