Ladakh, the land of many passes and natural lakes, and of freezing, high barren landscapes, is among the highest of the world’s inhabited plateaus. This beautiful, rugged land is characterised by stark mountain deserts cut by winding roads, exquisite Buddhist monasteries and ancient forts where the snow leopard seeks out the highest ridges at the margins of the season. Ladakh is classic Trans Himalayan scenery: huge khaki-coloured valleys and harsh rock walls brought alive by the occasional splash of irrigated green.
Traditional Tibetan Buddhist culture remains intact here, with spectacularly located monasteries that burst into life during medieval masked dance festivals that have changed little in 500 years. For travellers there’s a bit of everything – epic treks, sparkling high-altitude mountain lakes and a well developed backpacker infrastructure based around the capital, Leh. It is one of the most difficult yet exhilarating places to photograph because of its high altitude and lack of oxygen. Situated on the western end of the Himalayas, Ladakh has major mountain ranges – the Great Himalayan, Zanskar, Ladakh and the Karakoram – passing through it. Leh experiences extremes of temperature and you can get sunstroke and frostbite in the same day.
Its major waterway is the Indus river, famed since ancient times, mentioned in the sacred Hindu text, the Rigveda, as the Sapta Sindhu, and in the Iranian Zend Avesta as Hapta Hindu (both terms meaning seven rivers). The origin of the name India or Hind, its source is said to be in Laka Mansarovar, near Mount Kailash, the abode of Lord Shiva, and its banks have been home for many centuries to people who are of Tibetan stock following the Buddhist faith, and the Dards of Indo-Aryan or Dardic stock, practising Islam.
Ladakh also has one of the largest and most beautiful natural lakes in the country. Pangong Tso, approximately 134 km long and 4 km wide, is nearly an inland sea at a height of 4,350 m (14,270 ft) and one of the largest saltwater lakes in Asia. Having no outlet, the water in the lake is so brackish that it has no fish or other aquatic life, except for some small crustaceans. On the other hand, you can see numerous ducks, gulls and migratory birds over and on the lake’s surface, and the lake’s basin houses a large wealth of minerals deposited by the melting snows every year. During winter the lake freezes completely, despite being saline water.
Pangong Tso can be reached in a five-hour drive from the capital Leh, most of it on a rough and dramatic mountain road. The road crosses the villages of Shey and Gya and traverses the Changla pass, where army sentries and a small teahouse greet visitors. The road down from Changla Pass leads through Tangste and other smaller villages, crossing river called Pagal Naala or “The Crazy Stream”. The spectacular lakeside is open during the tourist season, from May to September. An Inner Line Permit is required to visit the lake as it is crossed by the Sino-Indian Line of Actual Control. While Indian nationals can obtain individual permits, others must have group permits (with a minimum of three persons and an accredited guide); the tourist office in Leh issues the permits for a small fee. For security reasons, India does not permit boating. But China has allowed tourist boating on the Tibetan side. 60 per cent of the lake is in China.
A section of the lake in Tibet is claimed by India and the western end of the lake is disputed between Pakistan and India as a part of the Kashmir dispute. Spanggur Tso, to the south, near the village of Chushul, is now under Chinese control. Pangong’s mesmerising palette of vivid blues can’t fail to impress, contrasting surreally with the colourful mineral swirls of starkly arid, snow-brushed mountains that surround it. Apart from three tiny villages and Lukung’s gaggle of tent-restaurants, the scene is striking for the utter lack of habitation along its shores. But the jeep safari from Leh is a joy in itself – scenically magnificent and constantly varied with serrated peaks, trickling streams, horse meadows, reflective ponds, drifting sands and a 5,289m pass. However, it’s tiring, and doing the return in one day is masochism. It’s vastly more pleasurable to stay at least one night in Spangmik or Man, 10 km beyond. Driving another 10 km on unpaved lakeside trails to end-of-the-world Merak is fascinating and even more beautiful, but crossing some of the fords can be rather nail-biting when water levels rise.
Another lake, Tso Moriri, is a pearl shaped lake in Changthang. The lake is at an altitude of 4,595 m (15,075 ft); it is India’s largest lake in the Trans-Himalayan biogeographic region. It is 240 km from Leh, accessed by a good road. One can also reach Tsomoriri directly from the Pangong Tso via the remote Changtang region. This is considered to be one of the most beautiful drives in Ladakh. Until 1960, Changpa traders extracted salt from Tso Moriri and Tso Kar to sell in Leh market. Both giant lakes can be combined into a two-or three-day jeep-tour. The most interesting time to visit little Korzok (Tso Moriri’s only settlement) is during the 10-day period when Chang Pa nomads move their camps close to the main road and dress traditionally to welcome the annual arrival of the local rimpoche (Buddhist priest). Ornithologists seeking rare black-necked cranes have a chance of spotting some around nearby Lake Tso Kar, around the lonely little Tsokar resort, 500 mts outside Thukye, the gompa-topped labyrinth of stone-walled sheep pens, used as a winter retreat by Chang Pa nomads.
The Indus valley people display a distinctive identity, preserving their Buddhist religion as well as their ancient cultural identity. Buddhism is a way of life in Ladakh, though there are people of other faiths who all live in harmony. The Buddhist monasteries that dot the Ladakh landscape and are the centre of attraction during various fairs and festivals. The clean, dry air, magnificent scenery and the warm hospitality of the happy people makes Ladakh truly memorable. A tour to Ladakh is not just about beautiful views of snow-capped peaks kissing the blue sky or colourful monasteries but about a centuries old ethos and the indomitable spirit of the Ladakhi people to survive cheerfully in one of the most hostile terrains in the world – visible in their sunny smiles and the steaming cups of Chang and momos they offer you when you stop at a village on your travels. Their stoicism and endurance is born from the spectacularly jagged, arid mountains that enfold this magical, Buddhist ex-kingdom.
Picture-perfect gompas dramatically crown rocky outcrops amid whitewashed stupas and meditational mani walls topped with mantra-inscribed pebbles. Colourful fluttering prayer flags spread their spiritual messages metaphorically with the mountain breeze. Prayer wheels spun clockwise release more merit-making mantras. Gompa interiors are colourfully awash with murals and statuary of numerous bodhisattvas.
Ladakh’s remarkably well-balanced traditional society has much to teach the West in terms of ecological awareness. While most Ladakhis are cash poor, traditional mud-brick homesteads are large, comfortable and self-sufficient in fuel and dairy products, organic vegetables and barley used to make tsampa (roast barley flour) and chhang. Such self-sufficiency is an incredible achievement given the short growing season and very limited arable land in this upland desert, where
precious water supplies must be laboriously channelled from glacier-melt mountain streams.
Few places in India are at once so traveller-friendly and yet so enchanting and hassle-free as the mountain-framed capital, Leh, entrance to the famous Thikse Monastery. Dotted with stupas and crumbling mud-brick houses, the Old Town is dominated by a dagger of steep rocky ridge topped by the imposing Tibetan-style Leh palace and Tsemo fort. Bearing a passing similarity to the Potala Palace in Lhasa, Tibet, the nine-storey dun-coloured Leh palace took shape under 17th-century king Sengge Namgyal. Visible from virtually everywhere in Leh, the 16th-century Tsemo (Victory) Fort is its defining landmark, that crowns the top of the Palace Ridge. Founded in the late 14th century as See-Thub Monastery, the impressive Spituk Gompa is incongruously perched overlooking the southern end of Leh’s airport runway, around 5km from town. The Old Town, beside Datun Sahib or behind Leh’s fanciful Jama Masjid, has winding alleys and stairways that burrow between and beneath a series of old mud-brick Ladakhi houses and eroded old chortens (stupas).
The Himalayas are the crowning apex of nature’s grandeur and one of the most memorable ways to view its remote gorges, hanging glaciers and towering peaks is on a trek through the Buddhist villages and high passes of Ladakh. Most of Ladakh lies above 3,000 mts and you will invariably suffer from altitude sickness. Avoid strenuous exertion for the first 24 hours and drink plenty of water and take acclimatisation pills. Always consider the effects of altitude when making steep ascents, particularly over mountain passes. Trekkers should take extra care to be properly equipped and adjust to the thin air before starting out.