The Mystical Kingdom
Ladakh, also known as Little Tibet, is among the world's highest plateaus. A blend of adventure and mysticism make it one of the most popular tourist destinations. Situated at more than 3,000 m above sea level, it lies more than 600 km north of New Delhi in the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir and is embraced between the two highest mountain ranges in the world, the Himalayas to the south and the Karakoram to the north. Ladakh is a vast area of about 100,000 sq. km, which represents one of the last refuges of Tibetan culture in free land.
Ladakh, a high altitude desert, is a gem for travelers passionate about vast spaces as well as for lovers of culture. Spectacularly jagged, arid mountains enfold this magical, Buddhist ex-kingdom. Picture perfect gompas dramatically crown rocky outcrops amid whitewashed stupas and meditational mani walls topped with mantra-inscribed pebbles. Colourful fluttering prayer flags spread their spiritual messages metaphorically with the mountain breeze.
Ladakh’s remarkably well-balanced traditional society has much to teach the West in terms of ecological awareness. Traditional mud brick homesteads are large, comfortable and self-sufficient in fuel and dairy products, organic vegetables and barley used to make tsampa (roast barley flour) and chhang (local beer). Such self-sufficiency is an incredible achievement given the short growing season and very limited arable land in this upland desert, where precious water supplies must be laboriously channelled from glacier-melt mountain streams.
The area was officially opened to foreign travelers in 1974. Yet, Ladakh has for centuries been at a crossroads of civilizations between Central Asia to the west and north, the Tibetan people in the East and the Indian subcontinent in the south. Until recently, caravans constantly roamed the Indus valley in Kashmir to Leh, the capital of Ladakh. Leh, the capital, is located in the Indus valley, which houses most of the Ladakhi population, and the largest monasteries in Ladakh.
Ladakh has five distinct regions in the North and Northeast, the valleys of the Nubra and Shyok, to the east the Rupshu plateau, in the south the ancient kingdom of Zanskar, and West in the direction of cashmere, Purig or ‘lower’ Ladakh. The largest part of the population of Ladakh is now settled and earning its living from agriculture, but a minority of Ladakhis remain nomadic, and lives with herds of yaks, horses, goats and sheep in the Rupshu area. The Changpas derive most of their income from goat wool, the famous pashmina.
Thiksey Gompa is located 17 kms south of Leh, is the most beautiful of all the monasteries in Ladakh. It belongs to the Gelugpa order. The Gonpa was first built at Stakmo by Sherab Zangpo of Stod. Later his nephew, Paldan Sherab, founded the Thiksey Gonpa on a hill-top, on the north of the Indus River. The festival of ‘Thiksey Gustor’ is held in October – November.
Dukhang Karmo is a huge, long assembly hall containing the image of Shakyamuni and the Maitreya Buddha statue. Chamkhang, at the top, near the courtyard contains the three-storyed Maitreya Buddha’s statue. Dukhang comprises thousands of armed Avalokiteshvara, Shakyamuni Buddha and Bodhisattvas. Gonkhang contains the statue of Vajra Bhairava, Mahakala, Dharmakaya, the goddess Paldan Lhamo and Chamsring.
Matho Gompa is perched on a colourfully stratified ridge above Matho village. Most of the early-15th-century monastery has been replaced by more modern structures in recent years and the top-floor museum is only one room. However, it’s still well worth the bumpy trip from Leh for the scenery en route and the exceptional valley views.
During the monastery’s famous Matho Nagrang festival (February/March), a pair of monk-oracles performs daring physical challenges while effectively blindfolded by mop-wigs, ‘seeing’ only through the fearsome ‘eyes’ painted on their chests. They also engage in ritual acts of self-mutilation and make predictions for the coming year.
Hemis Gompa is the most famous and the largest monastery of Ladakh, situated around 45 kms south of Leh. It belongs to the Drukpa order of Tibetan Buddhism. The monastery was founded by the first incarnation of Stagsang Raspa Nawang Gyatso in 1630, who was invited to Ladakh by King Singey Namgyal, who offered this Buddhist saint a large religious estate spread all over the Ladakh region. The king’s youngest son Nawang Namgyal became a monk and his name was changed to Zamling Drags. The monastery was named Changchub Samling and a monastic community was introduced. The Hemis festival is held in the month of June or early July.
Phyang Gompa is located 17 km west of Leh and is built on a hilltop, similar to Likir Monastery. It belongs to Dregung Pa order. It was the first monastery to introduce the Dregungpa teaching of Skyoba, Jikstan Gonbo in Ladakh. The gonpa was founded by Chosjey Damma Kunga during the reign of King Jampyang Namgyal in the 16th century A.D. It has about 50 resident monks. The two-day Phyang Tseruk (monastic festival) falls on the 2nd and 3rd of the 6th month of Tibetan calendar.
Likir Gompa Likir village is a few kilometers further from Basgo. It has a Gelugpa order monastery. In fact, the village got its name from the monastery Klu-Khil meaning ‘the Naga Encircled’ – a myth associated with the founding of this monastery. It is 53 km west of Leh. It was founded in 1065 A.D. by Lama Duwang Chosjey during the reign of King Lhachen Gyalpo. The monastery was named “Lhukhil Galdan Dargyasling” after the introduction of a monastic community. The annual monastic festival “Likir Dosmochey” takes place on the 28th and 29th day of the 12th month of Tibetan calendar.
Alchi Alchi Choskor “religious enclave” is 69 kms west of Leh. It is the most famous and largest of all the Gonpas built by Lotsava Rinchen Zangpo, the Great Translator, in the 11th century. The temple complex (no photography allowed) looks relatively uninteresting from outside but interior murals are considered the crowning glory of Ladakh’s Indo-Tibetan art. In the 15th century, Choskor was taken over by the Likir monastery. The monastery comprises of Dukhang (assembly hall), Sumtsag Lhakhang (a three tier shrine), the Lhakhang Soma (new temple), the Jamyang Lhakhang (Manjushri temple), the Lotsava Lhakhang (Translator Temple) and the Kangyur Lhakhang. The sculptors, painters and wood carvers were brought in from the Kashmir valley in the 11th century.
Lamayuru Gompa Set among mountain-backed badlands, low paced Lamayuru is one of Ladakh’s most memorable villages. Picturesque homes huddle around a crumbling hilltop that’s pitted with caves and topped by the ultra-photogenic Lamayuru Gompa. Behind glass within the gompa’s main prayer hall is a tiny cave in which 11th-century mystic Naropa meditated. Before that, legend claims, this whole area had been the bottom of a deep lake whose waters receded miraculously thanks to the powerful prayers of Buddhist saint Arahat Nimagung. Sculpted by time into curiously draped forms, the sands of that former lake-bed now form ‘moonland’ landscapes beside the new Leh road around 1km east of town.
Cycling A bicycle trip through the hilly terrains of Ladakh, is the perfect opportunity for you to lay back in the lap of nature, completely at peace with yourself. Renting bicycles for day trips is common among tourists, and quite a pleasurable experience. For an exhilarating yet effortless excursion take a jeep ride up to Khardung La (the ‘world’s highest road-pass’) and let gravity bring you back down. Actually, given the potholes of the uppermost 15km you might prefer to start from South Pullu army camp from which all 25km to Leh are well paved.
Mountain climbing Stok Kangri (6120m) is the triangular snowcapped peak usually visible straight across the valley from Leh. As a ‘trekking peak’ it’s accessible to those with minimal climbing experience but scaling its uppermost slopes still requires ice axes, crampons, considerable fitness and a guide with groups roped together for safety. Pre-climb acclimatisation is essential as AMS can be a serious worry. Many agencies offer Stok Kangri packages generally taking five days from Stok or Zingchen. Ladakh has over 100 other climbable peaks above 6000m, many rarely, if ever, scaled. Several outfits rent climbing gear.
Rafting Rafting on the Indus is one of the best experiences of white water rafting that you are likely to find in India. The water levels remain comfortably high, but not dangerously so, during the months of June to late August, and this is the best season for river rafting. In summer, numerous agencies offer daily rafting excursions through glorious canyon scenery. You can also follow in a kayak. Prepare to get very wet. There are two main routes, Phey to Nimmu– grade II (beginners); and Chiling to Nimmu – grade III, tougher; kayakers must be experienced.
Trekking Ladakh is a dream come true for adventure lovers because of its unique geographical features. It provides with every kind of terrain that makes the trip extremely thrilling and exciting. One of the best ways to explore the mountainous terrain of Ladakh is to go trekking. There are several trekking tours that take you across rocky cliffs, lush green grasslands, high altitude peaks, and freezing rivers. The clear blue skies will accompany you wherever you go.
Nubra The deep valleys of the Shyok and Nubra Rivers offer tremendous yet accessible scenery (permit required) with green oasis villages surrounded by thrillingly stark scree slopes, boulder fields and harsh arid mountains. Several travel agencies offer packages from Leh by chartered jeep, including Panamik, Diskit, Hunder and everything in between. While it’s possible to do all that in two days, lengthy view stops are the main attraction so taking a third day is recommended and costs no extra. You’ll certainly need that extra day (or more if you add Turtuk).
Markha Valley Very well-trodden tracks between diff use road less villages make this Ladakh’s most popular trekking area. There are fort ruins at Markha and Hankar and several seasonal parachute cafes. Homestays exist in virtually every settlement but before hiking across the Kongmaru La (5050m), those without camping gear will need to spend a night at Nimaling tent-camp. From Nimaling allow nine hours walking to Shang Sumdo via Chokdo (seven hours). Both places have homestays and there’s an 8am bus to Leh from Shang Sumdo. Allow at least five days for the Chiling– Nimaling–Shang Sumdo loop, including transport to/from Leh. Or simply explore the valley out-and-back from Chiling.
Kargil The town of Kargil is 220 kilometers from Leh. It is almost halfway to Srinagar from Leh. This Shia populated town remained a transit point of trade caravans from Tibet, Central Asia, Yarkand enroute Kashmir until 1949. Since Ladakh was open to tourists in 1974, Kargil became a night-halt for tourists traveling between Srinagar-Leh and Zanskar. Kargil, at an altitude of 10,000 feet, has the mighty Suru River flowing through it. Once a Buddhist area, this Shia Muslim dominated district was converted to Islam in the 15th century.
Pangong Lake A permit is required to visit Pangong Tso, a giant lake, whose surreal palate of vivid blues can’t fail to impress, backed as it is by colourful mineral swirls and rolling snow brushed mountains. Whether you’re driving or strolling, the views change constantly, emphasised by natural reflecting pools and occasional foregrounds of makeshift cairns. At one point, a sand-spit jutting into the turquoise waters creates an almost Caribbean beach scene near Lukung, the lake’s most accessible point.
Tsomoriri Lake Home to many species of birds, Tsomoriri Lake at Korzok in Changthang is tucked in the midst of barren mountains. The 19-kilometer long and 7 kilometer wide lake at an altitude of 4595 meters is located 215 kilometers southeast of Leh. The lake is fed by a number of small glacial streams and has no external drainage. Due to high rate of evaporation, the water itself is brackish and unfit for living organisms.
Sham The Sham Valley gives out the traditional aroma of the authentic Ladakh village life. There is no way one could be left untouched by the dream land that was transformed thanks to the streams that water the lands and bring prosperity and wild natural beauty. The main Ladakhi monasteries are lying in the remains of the ancient Kingdom of Shan, while there are many astonishing sites around to visit, like Alchi, Lamayuru, Phyang, Likir, Ridzong, Mangyu and Temisgang, most of them are reachable via the road. You will come across many beautiful villages such as Dah Hanu, Nurla, Photoksar, and Khaltse and familiarize yourself with the locals who have kept their customs and ways untouched by time. Sham is also the best place to spot the elusive snow leopard.