Ladakh: A Journey Into India's Most Majestic Landscape
Ladakh: A Journey Into India’s Most Majestic Landscape
Beneath cobalt-blue skies, an ancient Buddhist kingdom at the rooftop of India is revealing its riches to the world.
The Isolated Kingdom
Though only an hour flight away from Delhi, Ladakh feels like it could exist on another planet.
Nestled between Xinjiang, Pakistan, Kashmir and Tibet – more than 3,000 metres high at its lowest point – Ladakh has evolved from the traditions and ideas that, over centuries, trickled in despite the region’s rugged terrain and isolation.
Ladakh’s Supernatural Beauty
Meaning “land of high passes”, Ladakh lives up to its billing. Cradled by the Karakoram and Himalaya Mountains, Ladakh features some of the most stunning highland scenery on Earth.
Ancient trade and pilgrimage trails trace ridges in the shadows of snow-capped summits. At 4,500 metres, the turquoise Tso Moriri (Lake Moriri) gives life to one of the most remote parts of India, feeding wolves, Tibetan donkeys and some of Ladakh’s more than 300 species of birds.
Green valleys line the Indus River as it weaves its way south from its source in Tibet, while monasteries and mountain villages provide contrast to Ladakh’s supernatural moonscape.
Tibetan Buddhism in Ladakh
Ladakh was once the domain of nomadic yak herders. As Buddhism began to spread, however, pilgrims travelling to holy Mount Kailash formed permanent settlements near the Indus River.
Eventually, Tibetan Buddhist kings fortified an empire in one of the world’s most inaccessible regions. Moving in from the east, they brought Tibetan art, language, dance and food; ornate palaces; and spiritual communities called gompas (known as monasteries in English).
From the austere beauty of Diskit Gompa in Nurba to the idle tranquillity of Stakna Gompa, alone on a mountaintop in the Indus Valley, Tibetan Buddhist sites still dot the landscape. During important ceremonies, Buddhist lamas – spiritual leaders – don colourful costumes and masks, performing ritual dances inside these gompas, captivating travellers as they have for centuries.
World Class Trekking
The best way to experience Ladakh’s wild beauty is on two feet. With a well-organised network of teahouses, breath-taking passes rising higher than 5,000 metres and wildlife unseen anywhere else.
Ladakh offers some of the best trekking in India, if not the world
Short treks, such as the four-day journey from Spituk to Stok, take in Ladakh’s highlights.
The route begins with Spituk Gompa, one of Ladakh’s most important and beautiful monasteries. It then climbs rugged passes, travelling from village to village, before descending to Hemis National Park, which shelters an amazing variety of wildlife: Himalayan bears, red foxes, Tibetan antelope and the world’s largest population of snow leopards.
In Stok, just south of regional capital Leh, the trek concludes with a dive into Ladakh’s heritage. Stok Palace, built in 1820 by King Tsepal Namgyal, is still the summer home of Ladakh’s royal family. The three-story palace houses a number of royal artefacts – including jewel and gold encrusted crowns – as well as six well-appointed guestrooms, where outsiders are now permitted to stay and experience life in the shoes of Namgyal kings and queens.
Treks in Ladakh range from day-trips to multi-week journeys – and not just in summer.
Every year, when the Zanskar River freezes, adventure travellers can tackle a one-of-a-kind journey, hiking along the surface of the river immersed in a world of snow and icefall. (This trek does require technical skill and appropriate attire; hiring a guide is strongly suggested.)
As well as revealing Ladakh’s unique rock formations, the Zanskar trek offers perhaps the best opportunity to spot an elusive snow leopard, which descends to lower elevations in winter.
High-altitude Sand Dunes
Perhaps unexpected amidst a landscape defined by mountain peaks and snowfall, Ladakh’s Hunder sand dunes speak to the region’s geographical connection to Xinjiang and Central Asia.
Located at 4,000 metres elevation in the Nubra Valley, the silvery dunes stand in relief to the surrounding mountains and small stream flowing through the desert. Here roam pashmina goats and double-humped Bactrian camels, the kind used by merchants traversing the Silk Road – travellers can even relive that ancient tradition on a camelback safari across the dunes.
Looming above Ladakh’s largest city, Leh Palace recalls the glory of the Namgyal dynasty in its early days.
Built from stone, wood, mud and sand, dun-coloured Leh Palace – known as Lhachen Palkhar in the local language – was the seat of power in Ladakh from the 17th century until the middle of the 19th century, when Dongra invaders forced the royal family to move to Stok Palace.
Today, thanks to restoration work, the palace is one of the finest examples of Tibetan architecture in existence. Inside, the former stables, storage rooms and royal quarters serve as a museum, exhibiting a number of Buddhist paintings that date back more than 400 years.
Traditions Alive in Leh
From atop of Leh Palace, the Indus Valley opens up on the horizon, and Leh’s attractions come into clear view.
Leh’s warren-like Old Town showcases the architecture of early Tibetan settlements, though still in use today. Hundreds of mud-brick houses surround twisting alleys and stairways, leading to many religious sites, such as Jama Masjid, the most important Shia mosque in Ladakh.
The Old Town is a great place to try traditional Ladhaki food, such as shirmal, bread rounds baked in a wood-fired tandoori, and skyu, a sort of pasta made from slow-cooked diced flour.
Ladakh – Like Nowhere Else
Sheltered from the rest of the world for so long, Ladakh is unlike any of its neighbours. In India’s land of high passes, ancient customs still rule and the wilderness is untouched.
In Ladakh, adventure awaits