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TravelLadakh: The Otherworldly Charm of India's Tibet

Ladakh: The Otherworldly Charm of India's Tibet

Ladakh: The Otherworldly Charm of India's Tibet
By Rachel Duffell
January 18, 2019
Namgyal Tsemo Gompa, a Buddhist monastery and fortress in the Leh district, is typical of Tibetan Buddhist architecture. Such gompas are not only places for prayer and meditation but spaces for religious learning

This is Little Tibet. Located in India’s northern state of Jammu and Kashmir, much of Ladakh’s monastic architecture, as well as its culture, is akin to that of its neighbour. Monasteries perch precariously in the foothills of the Kunlun Mountains and majestic Himalayas, while resplendent bodies of water, such as Pangong Lake, sparkle, their crystal depths clear under blue skies. Distinctive high-altitude cold deserts stretch across vast plains, while in the base of the lofty valleys, sand dunes roll, patterned by natural forces. Within this striking landscape, where India, China, and Pakistan meet, ancestral traditions have endured. Ladakhis and nomadic tribes go about their ancient ways relatively untouched by the modern world—the region only opened to tourism in 1974. It is the “land of high passes.” Inhabitants of the Himalayan kingdom’s largest town, Leh, live at 3,500 metres above sea level. The wanderings of nomadic Tibetans take them beyond 4,500 metres. Such are the altitudes that those with lungs more accustomed to sea level will take time to acclimatise, and visitors to Ladakh are encouraged to do little but lie prone for at least the first day. This in itself is a challenge, for outside the windows or beyond the flapping canvas of the yurts lies the kind of dramatic scenery that takes away what breath is left. With visitor numbers on the rise, the time to take in the abiding charm of this magical land is now.

Traditional Tibetan eventstake place all year round.Monks often participate,playing the Tibetan horn,or dungchen, for example,which they do at the HemisMonastery festival
Traditional Tibetan eventstake place all year round.Monks often participate,playing the Tibetan horn,or dungchen, for example,which they do at the HemisMonastery festival
Whilethe most comfortable timeto visit Ladakh is duringsummer, those preparedto brave winter’s frequentbelow-zero temperatures andsnow-blocked roads will berewarded. Festivals continue,offering opportunities tointeract with locals usuallybedecked in their finestcostume
Whilethe most comfortable timeto visit Ladakh is duringsummer, those preparedto brave winter’s frequentbelow-zero temperatures andsnow-blocked roads will berewarded. Festivals continue,offering opportunities tointeract with locals usuallybedecked in their finestcostume
it is also a juncturewhen school-going children ofnomadic tribes return to helptheir families with livestock,which may be preyed uponby snow leopards. Headout on safari to try to catcha glimpse of the region’selusive big cat. Last year,authorities removed thesnow leopard from the list ofendangered species—furtherencouragement to visitorsto sacrifice warmer climesin favour of an increasedchance of sighting one ofthese majestic creatures
it is also a juncturewhen school-going children ofnomadic tribes return to helptheir families with livestock,which may be preyed uponby snow leopards. Headout on safari to try to catcha glimpse of the region’selusive big cat. Last year,authorities removed thesnow leopard from the list ofendangered species—furtherencouragement to visitorsto sacrifice warmer climesin favour of an increasedchance of sighting one ofthese majestic creatures

TRAVEL TIPS

GETTING THERE: It takes 90 minutes to fly from New Delhi to Leh, which has one of the world’s highest airports. Be sure to have appropriate medication for altitude sickness at hand and rest for at least 24 hours on arrival. In summer, Ladakh is reachable by road from Manali or Srinagar, and this is the best way to acclimatise gradually.

WEATHER: Festivals take place year round and offer visitors a memorable experience. Ladakh is busiest from April, when it starts to warm up. Late September and October are the most picturesque, and by November the temperature starts to drop and snow is expected. Flights can be affected by weather, so bear this in mind if you are on a tight schedule.

GETTING AROUND: Most hotels and travel firms can arrange cars, drivers and guides. Ladakh has the world’s highest drivable road, which rises above 5,800 metres between Chisumle and Demchok. Particularly picturesque routes include Leh to Pangong Lake (220 kilometres and about five hours) and Leh to Diskit in the Nubra Valley (120 kilometres and three hours).

ELECTRICITY: Electricity across Ladakh is volatile though reliability has improved in Leh in recent years. Rural towns often have no permanent supply and different areas may have access to electricity on different days of the week. Take backup batteries for digital items, particularly when visiting in winter as they run down more quickly in the cold.

FOOD: From delicious momos (dumplings) to curried dishes, spicy stewed vegetables, and thukpa (noodle soup), all washed down with yak butter tea, Ladakh offers a wide array of simple but delicious food. Khambir—thick, whole wheat bread—is perfect for dipping in the flavourful stews.

WHERE TO STAY: Leh’s Gomang Boutique Hotel is an excellent choice for comfort and hospitality, while Ladakh Sarai’s options range from traditional mud houses to heritage rooms in a 100-year-old restored property. The Ladakh Sarai people have also opened the Hermitage at Pangong, a summer camp of eco-friendly yurts overlooking the stunning lake.

Ladakh’s ancestral sports includepolo and archery, each with rulesand traditions distinct from those inthe West. Archery festivals occur insummer, where the sport is carried outto the sounds of traditional musicalinstruments as participants competein full costume
Ladakh’s ancestral sports includepolo and archery, each with rulesand traditions distinct from those inthe West. Archery festivals occur insummer, where the sport is carried outto the sounds of traditional musicalinstruments as participants competein full costume
Polo is fast and furiousand played with hardy local poniesused to the altitude by virtue of livingand grazing on high grasslands.Horses are also used by nomadictribes for transport.
Polo is fast and furiousand played with hardy local poniesused to the altitude by virtue of livingand grazing on high grasslands.Horses are also used by nomadictribes for transport.
Grassland plains are punctuated bywondrous high-altitude lakes such asTso Moriri, a brackish body of watersituated above 4,500 metres
Grassland plains are punctuated bywondrous high-altitude lakes such asTso Moriri, a brackish body of watersituated above 4,500 metres
Sand dunes roll across partof the Nubra Valley, a highaltitudecold desert thatseparates Ladakh from theKarakoram mountain range.The Shyok and Nubra riversmeet here, resulting in fertileland that nurtures a range ofgrains and fruit and is wellsuited to grazing Bactriancamels and pashminagoats.The goats, alsoknown as changthangi, arefamed for their ultra-finewool, which is used in thecoveted scarves to whichthey lend their name.
Sand dunes roll across partof the Nubra Valley, a highaltitudecold desert thatseparates Ladakh from theKarakoram mountain range.The Shyok and Nubra riversmeet here, resulting in fertileland that nurtures a range ofgrains and fruit and is wellsuited to grazing Bactriancamels and pashminagoats.The goats, alsoknown as changthangi, arefamed for their ultra-finewool, which is used in thecoveted scarves to whichthey lend their name.
  • Images Manish Lakhani

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