By Phoowadon Duangmee
The closest thing on Earth to a trip to the lunar surface could well be a visit to Ladakh in northern India
Flying over Ladakh, the landscape appears bleak, brown and empty across a corrugation of immense, lifeless ranges, so it feels as though we’re landing on the moon.
Ladakh has been known by many names among the travellers who made it along tiny paths between the mountains to this high, landlocked area. Nomads and ancient trader caravans that crossed through the high passes from China and Central Asia marked Ladakh on their mental maps as the “land below the mountain passes”.
Tibetan and Buddhist pilgrims know it as the land of the lama. (In Tibetan Buddhism, a lama is considered a master of certain areas of Buddhism and may be the head of one or more monasteries. Most monks are not lamas and a lama is not necessarily a monk.)
In the West, Ladakh is sometimes referred to as the Moon City, and it’s easy to see why. I could imagine my footprints messing up Neil Armstrong’s while taking one small step from the airport.
Ladakh forms part of the state of Jammu and Kashmir in India. Parts of Ladakh are under the illegal occupation of Pakistan and China. The border of Ladakh touches those of Afghanistan, Pakistan, China, the Kashmir Valley (India) and Himachal Pradesh (India).
This area covers a total area of about 59,000 square kilometres and is made up of two administrative regions: Leh District, with its headquarters at Leh Town and Kargil District, with its headquarters at Kargil.
We land in Leh Town, and the grotesque landscape makes the first impression. Coming from a leafy, green land that receives heavy rains for four months of the year, it’s hard to imagine how people survive in such a bleak environment. Sprawled across the dry Indus Valley, Leh District is like a huge canvas plastered in shades of brown.
Ladakhi houses are simple, matchbox dwellings, with small windows and many are made of mud-brick. No green is seen, and if tiny dots of blue, red and yellow are spotted, they are Tibetan prayer flags flying.
“Unlike India’s teeming cities, the Great Himalayan range blocks the monsoon clouds from us, putting the place in a complete rain shadow,” says local agricultural officer and our guide Thinles Dawa.
“The result is cold high-altitude desert and tremendous mountains,” he says.
The military was the largest industry in Leh Town when India and Pakistan were fighting on the world’s highest battlefield at Siachen Glacier at altitudes of 6,800 metres in minus-60 temperatures.
Leh Town was hardly accessible for a long time and only intrepid backpackers would endure the two days on Indian public buses along the world’s second highest road that snaked its way from Manali to Leh, sometimes reaching 5,334 metres.
Then the tourists came, thanks to the Indo-Pakistan peace talks and daily Indian Airlines flights. Walking up and down in Leh’s Old Town, you’re amused by the travellers who are both warming up and chilling out with cups of ginger tea, trying to work out how on earth the wandering cows can be so beefy when their staple diet is rubbish from the garbage bins.
We take the whole afternoon to discover the Leh Town and meet the local Ladakhis. The market is clean, at least by India standards, and people aren’t as eager to practice the flashy tricks that separate money from pocket. Knitting, weaving paintings and carpets showing off Kashmir and Tibetan touches are everywhere in the Old Bazaar Area. In fact, if you just had been through Agra and Varanasi, which are full of noisy demanding touts and tourist traps, Leh is heaven for your weary soul.
“Ladakhis are an easy-going folk,” Thinles says. “We love chai (tea) and much as chang (local beer). You will find Ladakhis are easy to get along with when you say ‘jule’. It’s Ladakhi for everything from ‘hello’ to ‘goodbye’ to ‘thank you’,” Thinles says.
The best place to see the city is from Leh Palace. Hanging on the edge of a hill overlooking the town, this 17th-century palace is a miniature version of the Tibetan Potala Palace in Lhasa. The palace is mostly ruined, but it is worth the climb for the stunning view of the town scattered across the dusty valley.
The town is small enough to find your way easily around through the array of mud-brick buildings, but it’s big enough to fit many of the world’s religions. A Muslim mosque, Hindu temple, a Christian church and a Tibetan monastery.
If you come up to the palace around prayer time, a religious “cold war” is fought through the air. The first volley rings out from the mosque as the call to prayer is launched through a load speaker. The Buddhist monastery nearby answers the call with Tibetan chants through an even-louder speaker.
Ladakh is the land of Tibetan lama, and the trip is not complete without a visit to the monasteries.
Taking the bus far out of town one morning, we plod up on the steep road heading to the small Ladakhis village of Alchi, west of Leh Town. Here, again we encounter bleak and austere “roof-of-the-world landscapes. The ribbon of the road reels its way around the tremendous mountain, and sweeps down into a fascinating valley. Beside us is the chocolate brown Indus River, fountainhead of the world’s earliest civilisations, in our face is the great Himalayan Range.
Every once in a while you see a mud-brick monastery or ruined cathedral standing alone on the top of the mountain. Then there’s a sluggish caravan, perhaps the last of Himalayan gypsies, ambling along the sand in the distance. What do they carry? Usually Kashmiri carpets or AK-47 automatic rifles from Kabul.
During the four hours negotiating the high-altitude terrain, I feel like calling up my high school’s Geography teacher, and asking him where I am. One minute I think I’m on Mars, and then the appearance of a horse caravan shifts me back to the silk road and ancient trade routes across Central Asia and Tibet.
We finally reach the Alchi monastery and a small village, home to many chortens (stupas) and houses by the Indus River. The place is far less developed by India tourism authorities and villagers adhere to the original Tibet lifestyle. Women work their small patch of farms beside the river, and men are busy with repairing and fortifying their mud houses just before the arrival of an unbearable winter.
Buddhism has been gradually disappeared in India, and is in the process of being stamped out by the Chinese in Tibet, Ladakh remains a spiritual stronghold for Tibetan Buddhism. The rectangular monastery remains the Tibetan’s proud vestige of ancient knowledge. Alchi wall paintings for example show as much of Tibetan art in the 11th Century as they do of the wisdom of Lord Buddha.
On the way back to Leh Town, we stop at Basco, once Ladakh’s capital before it was relocated to Leh. Listed in the top-100 of endangered World Heritage sites, the mud-brick citadel has stood against time for 500 years. It is mostly in ruins, but it is truly moving. You can feel the peace in the air while watching the prayer banners waving.
The best time to travel in Ladakh is between June to September, and Delhi is the gateway. Temperatures range from 7 to 25C then and sun protection is recommended. Even though it feels cold, the clarity of the high altitude can lead to severe sunburn.
The easiest access is to fly Indian Airlines to Leh Town, but two days on the overland route from Manali via the Taglang-la Pass (5,325 metres) is better for the more adventurous.
There is plenty of accommodation available, from budget guesthouses at Rs150 (Bt132) per night to hotels at Rs1500 per night.