The wonders of Ladakh

Travel Destinations — By on December 1, 2008 at 2:29 pm

Ladakh is a fascinating place. A Tibetan Buddhist culture in northern India, it has more in common with such neighbors as Bhutan and Nepal than it does with the country to which it belongs. David Desjardins and his family recently discovered that the Ladakhi landscape is also spectacular and the people are friendly and welcoming. He, his wife and their 12-year-old son recently went trekking in Ladakh, an adventure that David recounted in a story for the Boston Globe.

A high desert plateau pitched between the autonomous Chinese region of Tibet to the east and Pakistan to the west, Ladakh (“Land of High Passes”) is part of India, but has more in common with its neighbors. It is the meeting place of two mountain ranges – the Karakoram and the Himalaya – and of two cultures, Buddhist and Muslim. For centuries, it was an important stop along the ancient Silk Road, but today political tensions to the east and west ensure that most visitors to Ladakh approach it from the south.

Surrounded by mountains, Ladakh was for centuries inaccessible for much of the year, its high passes choked with snow from October through May, often longer. Air travel has changed that, but even today flights are frequently canceled because of bad weather. The region’s high paths and roads are open in July and August. When the throngs arrive, they flock to Leh, Ladakh’s ancient capital and the center of its tourist trade.

Nestled along the Indus River valley at an altitude of 11,500 feet, Leh is where visitors catch their breath. The need to acclimatize, and to organize a trek, usually keeps newcomers in Ladakh’s biggest town for a few days – and for most, that’s more than enough. Leh’s narrow streets and alleys are choked with traffic, shops, and meandering dogs and cattle. Although it had its charms, we were soon eager to strike out for the wide-open country…

So began our journey into the backcountry of Ladakh, where all traffic is foot traffic and life is lived at a slower pace. Our daily routine – rising, eating, walking, eating, sleeping – helped us slow down too, and let us experience the rhythms of Ladakhi life. Passing fields, we heard farmers singing as they worked. Atop mountain passes, we paused as our guides strung up prayer flags and lighted incense. Descending, we picked our way through herds of grazing sheep and dzos, the Ladakhis’ hybrid of yak and domesticated cow. Visiting a town’s temple, we turned the prayer wheels that lined its walls and rested in the presence of centuries-old Buddhist sculptures, gilded in riotous colors that contrasted with the gray-brown terrain outside.

The landscape we walked through was a slideshow of wild, tortured peaks and ravines, mostly tan and gray, interrupted occasionally by purple funneled hoodoos and reddish slashes raked into the hillside. Glaciers sprawled below snow-capped mountains, feeding streams that carved the deep gorges we hiked through.

If you’d like to read a sample of my own experiences in Ladakh, you can check out this section from my travel memoir, Two Laps Around the World.

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