Ladakh

Overview

Introduction

Ladakh, India, is the name of the eastern two-thirds of the state of Jammu and Kashmir. It's in a beautiful Himalayan range, characterized by a desolate, moonlike landscape and snowy peaks (it's inaccessible by road during winter). Ladakh is extremely dry—with rainfall levels as low as in the Sahara—because the mountains keep clouds out.

In some ways, Ladakh is more purely Tibetan than the Tibet of today. When Tibet was swallowed by China in the 1950s, the Chinese did their best to dilute Tibetan culture, but Ladakh's Tibetans have carried their traditions forward unimpeded. That's not to say Ladakh is untouched by outside influences. The area has been open to tourists since the mid-1970s, and substantial changes have occurred. There are still sections, however, that seem to have remained unchanged for centuries. Adventurous travelers can get around on the uncomfortable old buses or private taxis; others will want to take an escorted tour. Some of the treks through the area include white-water rafting.

As the sky-high (11,499 ft/3,505 m) capital of Ladakh, Leh, located 390 mi/625 km north of Delhi, is where most travelers stay while visiting area monasteries. It's a fun town to walk about—you may see sidewalk magicians, monks chanting, elderly women spinning prayer wheels and Tibetan refugees selling wares in the market. Leh Palace, which resembles Tibet's Potala, is in such disrepair that it's not worth going inside, but the view from the entrance is quite grand. The Leh Gompa (a gompa is a monastery) is in good shape, has interesting artifacts and is within walking distance of town. Though Leh Gompa is worth seeing, it's not as nice as many of the monasteries in the outlying region. Alchi is the oldest monastery accessible by public transportation from Leh. (Note: Leh's handful of ATMs means long lines and occasional cash shortages; we recommend taking all the money you think you'll need with you.)

The 4-mi/6-km walk to the town of Saspol is surreal. Nowhere is the austere landscape of Ladakh more pronounced: There's no vegetation, only stone chortens (small religious totems) dotting the sandy countryside. Among the other monasteries in the area are Shey and Tikse—take the interesting 1-mi/2-km walk between them. Tikse has a stunning two-story Buddha and is home to many old thanka paintings; unfortunately, they're in a room so dark that it's difficult to see them.

The Lamayuru monastery, located 9 mi/15 km off the Srinagar-Leh Road and near a high pass (13,400 ft/4,100 m), looks like it belongs in Shangri-La. It's a fairly large Tibetan monastery, nestled in a valley with a thin finger of green flowing from the heavily cultivated banks of a stream. The original buildings on the site date from the 10th century, making it the oldest monastery in Ladakh. At one time 400 monks lived there, though only 30 reside there today. The monastery contains an 11-headed, 1,000-eyed image of the god Chanrazi.

Although a number of Ladakh treks begin in Leh, the preferred area for trekking is the more remote southwestern region of Zanskar. Treks there are more strenuous than the walking treks from Kashmiri towns, and careful planning is necessary. The inexperienced should join an organized tour (some include white-water rafting and canoeing). It's essential that anyone trekking independently in this area take everything necessary—there are almost no provisions to be found en route. If you're going without a tour, a local guide is strongly recommended. Bear in mind that it will be cold any time of year. It's possible to arrange a pony trek for some trails, but the saddles are uncomfortable.

Another extreme adventure that has recently gained popularity is the chaddar trek. Chaddar means "sheet," and in winter, the river Zanskar freezes like a sheet over the land; intrepid trekkers traverse over this thick frozen sheet of ice. The sight of everything, including little streams, springs and waterfalls, looking as if they've been flash-frozen is heartachingly beautiful and, some agree, definitely worth the effort of spending a few days out in temperatures as low as -7 degrees F/-22 degrees C and sleeping in a tent on the ice.

Because of Zanskar's relative proximity to the troubled parts of Kashmir, travelers should exercise caution when deciding whether and when to go. The reward for all of this is an unforgettable journey through a truly wonderful and remote region.

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