Located almost cheek-by-jowl with the vast expanses of the Tibetan Plateau on its eastern borders, the Union Territory of Ladakh is now a separate entity from the state of Jammu & Kashmir. It’s also is one of the remotest areas of tempting cultural explorations in India. This high-altitude plateau in the Upper Indus River Valley, nestling between the serried ranks of the saw-toothed peaks of the Western most Himalayas and the Karakoram Range, was closed to outsiders till the 1970s.
Largely devoid of rains and snow in the upper regions, it is a harsh world thinly populated amongst those ancient ravines and mountain perches. Yet a terrible beauty is born, out of this paring down by nature, urging visitors to reimagine the boundaries of body and mind as they venture into these isolated landscapes, so far from the comforts of home.
In the desolate expanses of this high altitude, cold desert, vegetation is confined to the valleys and sheltered areas. The Indus River along with a slew of meltwater streams, offers some respite from the challenges of this harsh land. In the river valleys, small oases have mushroomed with homesteads eking out a living tending small plots of wheat, barley, millet, buckwheat, peas, beans, potatoes and turnips between the months of May and August.
Yet strangely enough, Ladakh’s cultural and spiritual pursuits have created a gorgeous tapestry of incredible richness despite the challenges of its stark geographic architecture. The indisputable connections between the people and this wild and remote land serve as signposts that charge your imagination and blow away preconceived notions and attitudes of human endeavour in the most challenging situations.
For first-time visitors, even bustling Leh, sandwiched between the Zanskar and Ladakh ranges at a height of 3,500 m along the Indus River, can take your breath away with its pristine moonscape setting and its otherworldly vibe… under all that noise of a touristy hub. Peel back the layers on your sojourn in the regional capital to discover how this gateway opens up the casements to new frontiers for both in body and soul.
Explorations of the Namgyal Palace, towering above the old town, the Namgyal Tsemo Monastery swathed in deep serenity the Sankar Gompa and poking around the old bazaar, are sure to rouse your curiosity about this land, its people and its customs. Vestiges, of its position as a hub of activity along the caravan routes for hundreds of years, reveal themselves in the most unexpected way. Its cross-cultural narrative has been enriched by Buddhist devotees, Tibetan escapees, Islamic and Sikh rulers and traders plying the Central Asian Silk Road.
Regular buses will take you to Shey, the ruined palace and site for the colossal Buddha statue and Thikse monastery; head then to the Stok Palace, home of the Ladakhi queen; further on lies Hemis, the richest monastery in Ladakh and venue for the famous annual festival in summer. Trekkers and climbers congregate in Leh for visits to Hemis National Park–home of the endangered snow leopard, the climbing of Stok Kangri Peak, and the riverside palaces and gompas from yesteryears.
Unmissable in Ladakh’s central and eastern parts is the influence of Tibetan Buddhism. This is liberally evident in the Leh region, which is home to the people of Tibetan descent. Exploring Ladakh’s spiritual roots provides rich fodder for thought as you travel around the Tibetan-style monasteries, chortens and mani walls scattered in the region. Being cut off from the outside world for so long was a blessing in disguise, as many aspects of its spiritual and cultural roots have been preserved for centuries.
A picnic-style traditional Ladakhi meal with a local host opens up conversations about seasonal agricultural patterns and harvests and sun-dried yak meat stored away for those long brutal winters when, being snowed under, it remains cut off for almost six months. Central Asia and Kashmir certainly added their influences on Ladakh’s food ways. Embedded in its food habits too are strong linkages with Tibet, reflected in the popular barley-based tsampa, thukpa, mokmok (momos) and chhang the local brew made from barley, or gurgur cha, the ubiquitous butter tea that keeps you warm and the conversation flowing, whatever the occasion. You might like to dismiss caution to the winds and sup on distinctive delicacies such as Skyu, a soup-based traditional speciality, Chhutagi, Tingmo a bun-shaped Tibetan bread and the yummy Ladakhi Pulao inspired by Yarkandi Pulao.
Waste not, want not. You will learn all about how for Ladakhis nothing is wasted because of the scarcity of resources. What has long lost its use for humans comes in the use for their animals. Even night soil is converted into dry compost to fertilise the land.
The physical challenges you encounter in this remote cold desert will long be forgotten by the compensation of gains you receive. Unforgettable is the transformative outlook shaped by your cultural and spiritual experiences and the warmth and generosity of a people who have moulded their lives in sync with these harsh landscapes.