Ladakh is far from the India of popular imagination. As Shehan Karunatilaka discovers, there’s little colour and no chaos – just rugged mountains, mirror-like lakes and monasteries that hold the region’s indomitable spirit.
It can make you short of breath and cause nausea, dizziness and even hallucinations. And it can lead you to ponder big questions about why mountains are large, why the sky is blue, why humans are tiny and why anything has to be.
My attitude to altitude is shared by many. I prefer the thought of having climbed a mountain to actually climbing one. I like to trek from the comfort of a hammock. I don’t mind camping as long as someone else pitches the tent.
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For the idle traveller, Ladakh is India’s Alaska. Northern, remote, cooler, sparser and free of India’s clichés. Here you won’t find chaos, noise, squalor or crowds. In their stead are great rocks exhaling clouds, the sun casting flares off a lake, a landscape baked and cooled by passing millennia, a cathedral of stone. The wind blows colour from the prayer flags and the monasteries perch on cliffs, gazing over orchards into infinity.
Straddling both the Silk Route and the hippie trail and hidden in the ranges of Jammu and Kashmir, a state bordered by three nuclear powers, Ladakh is an unconquered land that many have their eye on. Its name means “land of high passes” and guidebooks have nicknamed it Little Tibet and the Roof of the World.
Buddhism is said to have arrived here via China, instead of direct from the source down south. It absorbed the Mahayana and Vajrayana schools, the latter bringing Tantric and Hindu iconography to the local temple art. The great religion is preserved in these valleys and hills, protected from the 20th century’s cultural revolutions by stoic mountains and guardian deities.
Ladakh could be the stage for a Western movie shot in the East or a post-apocalyptic wilderness tale. The palette is autumnal – greys, browns and whites, with the occasional shock of blue or green – and the weather is a mix of spring and winter. The blazing sun and a frosty breeze will chap your lips and bronze your skin.
The region is 45,000 square kilometres of mountains, glaciers, lakes and valleys, occupied by rarely seen snow leopards, ubiquitous yaks and only 250,000 people. These descendants of Mons and Dards cultivate apricot groves and barley fields and share the land with goats, gazelles, wolves and hawks.
Ladakh was opened up to tourism in 1974 (about a decade after China closed its borders) and has welcomed adventurers, explorers and pilgrims to its magnificent peaks.
On my own expedition, I’m in the capable hands of Jamshyd Sethna, a tea planter, poet and psychoanalyst, who combines his gifts as a storyteller, mountaineer and shrink to offer “inner journeys... outdoors” through his company, Shakti Tours.
The experience, which involves staying in village homes with host families in the Indus Valley, is perfect for “trekkers” like me who prefer to conquer summits in air-conditioned jeeps. Each homestay has three levels: down below are the shaggy-coated cattle that warm the building with their fertiliser, while the middle level holds the host family, who lease the top floor to visitors.
In my room I find a comfy bed, a fireplace below an air conditioner, a Jacuzzi near a wood stack and a tea selection on a copper tray. This is luxury masquerading as rustic. I step out onto the terrace, follow the geometry of the snow-capped peaks and sit in silence. Shakti Tours’ agenda for day one is to do nothing. Tick.
My week in the mountains is spent at four such homes in the villages of Stok, Nimoo and Likir – all of them authentic in style and texture, with modern conveniences installed and modern inconveniences removed. I enjoy garden-fresh meals, impeccable and invisible service, and views that I keep all to myself. I’m also granted a guide from the region who is well versed in history and myth, with wide-eyed wonder for vast, empty spaces.
There are walks to local palaces like the one at Stok, where “the King” wears a T-shirt and curates the museum; hikes past willow, poplar, apple and walnut trees; and strolls to traditional homes in which matriarchy prevails and polyandry is commonplace. The scrunch of cut nettles under your feet is as intoxicating as squishing bubble wrap.
The bike ride from Stok to Hemis Monastery takes at least two hours and covers 45 kilometres. It is mostly flat and goes from a tree-lined highway through barren hills to what looks like the surface of the moon. It’s exhilarating and the silence lets you project your feelings onto the landscape. These waver from awe to tranquillity to impatience to despair, depending on the incline.
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Call me lazy but I enjoy the drives the most, on curling thoroughfares where workmen have shaved shards from the mountain and turned ridges into roads. We are overtaken by trucks with horns that sound like saxophones and pass road signs with safety messages in rhymes and puns: After whisky, driving is risky. Check your nerves on my curves. If married, divorce speed. Better Mr Late than the Late Mr.
We pass the army base with its statue of a giant tap. Though we see as many soldiers as we do monks, most are mercifully idle, stationed as a deterrent to peeping neighbours from beyond the valley. We navigate dangerous bends and plunge uphill into gravel. My guide, Rudi, a snowboarder from Darjeeling, tells me of wars and kings and dragons and Neolithic fossils – and then about floods and earth slips and border conflicts.
We listen to Nepathya’s “fusion jazz-rock” from Nepal and discuss why Buddhism didn’t take off in India and why India can’t qualify for the football World Cup as if the topics are related, which they may well be. Experiencing a week in Ladakh, even done lazy-adventurer style, can’t be reduced to a list of activities.
The cuisine makes a good case for vegetarianism. The breakfasts are healthy, the lunches light and the dinners glorious. There’s excellent lamb or fowl on the table but I skip it for the fresh veg – stewed, sautéed or curried, northern Indian or Ladakhi style.
The city of Leh has internet, good coffee and a colourful flea market. We meet backpackers, travel agents and local shop owners, most with blurry eyes and messy hair like they’ve just woken from a dream. There are fine bookshops and wonderful stalls selling pashminas, trinkets and chillums (pipes).
My pilgrimage covers the Hemis, Thiksey, Alchi, Likir and Lamayuru monasteries, each on a different elevation, each with its own spectacular view. At the entrance to every monastery, there are prayer wheels containing scrolls that we spin clockwise to unleash the wisdom of the ages into the cosmos. The shrines are red and filled with rich textures and startling imagery.
I’m treated to a pantheon of coloured deities: statues of bodhisattvas, some giant, some tiny; paintings, in garish hues, of gurus, consorts, guardian deities and demons; the Wheel of Life with its many realms, including heaven and hell, and hungry ghosts with large stomachs and tiny mouths; thangkas (scroll paintings) featuring myriad buddhas; Jataka stories with all-animal casts; and multi-limbed avatars crossing swords with triple-eyed gods. The art, which mostly dates back to the 11th century, is intricate, absorbing, erotic and grotesque.
If you wish to balance spiritual Yin with physical Yang, Ladakh offers kayaking, mountaineering, camel safaris, polo and archery. Rudi knows I prefer village walks and tea on the terrace to climbing ragged inclines in a helmet – but he convinces me to raft down the Indus River. By the tail end of the May-to-September season, the rapids aren’t too ferocious. Still, we’re hurled downstream at speed and the spray soaks our wetsuits. We race past crumpled mountains and listen to the guides’ spooky stories about whirlpools.
Then there’s a picnic in an orchard full of birds; a tricky climb to Basgo Fort; a cave of paintings at Saspol that archaeologists are restoring by hand; and a copper-craftsman’s hut in a town called Chilling, where you may chill with a chillum if you like alliteration.
In the local vernacular, julley is an all-purpose word for hello, goodbye and thank you. I overuse it when I have an audience with a monk from Thiksey and we discuss the nature of nirvana, the lure of materialism, the violence in Myanmar and how to make ginger tea. Most monks I meet are calm and wise; a few are children who yell out their prayers. Some pose for selfies with tourists and one argues with my non-Ladakhi guide.
There’s more than enough to fill your days but that’s the opposite of the point. The locals here “work like yaks then hibernate like marmots”. There isn’t huge wealth but there is self-sufficiency. As Buddhism teaches, it’s better to have enough than to have everything.
What a visitor needs to take from Ladakh is not the beauty or the views but the silence. Whether you’re climbing, gazing at or looking down from one of these giant peaks, once the thoughts stop buzzing around your head, you realise the landscape has much to tell you.
It will tell you that nature is vast, indifferent and worth fearing; that mountains will remain long after humans have exploded their atoms; and that great rocks will outlast large armies, tall trees, luxury huts and even thoughts. ￼
The writer was a guest of Shakti Tours. The Shakti Ladakh Village Experience includes seven nights’ accommodation, meals, beverages, activities, two raft trips, an English-speaking guide, a private chef, porters, a car at your disposal and transfers to/from Leh’s airport.
Tips for first-timers to northern India
Contrary to rumour, Australian travellers do not get a 30-day visa on arrival. You can apply for an Electronic Tourist Visa online at indianvisaonline.gov.in. The forms are lengthy and may take several days to process so it’s recommended you apply at least two weeks before travel.
Observe the general rules of entering Buddhist temples: no headgear, footwear or revealing clothing. You may photograph without using a flash inside most temples, except where it is expressly forbidden. Always ask for permission before you photograph anyone, especially monks.
Whether you’re scaling summits or strolling around monasteries, once you’re at an altitude of 10,000 feet (3048 metres), you’ll need to ascend gradually (1000 feet a day) and keep your hydration up. Garlic in water will maintain oxygen levels. Avoid coffee, tea, alcohol and cigarettes – at least for the first day.
Pack clothes you can layer. From May to September, you’ll encounter T-shirt-and-shorts weather and sweater-and-thermals weather, sometimes on the same day. Take comfortable walking shoes that are easy to remove at monasteries. Other essentials are sunblock, lip balm, sunglasses, headgear and a book for evenings by the fire. Plastic bags are banned in Ladakh.