State Jammu & Kashmir Places Leh and around
Location Ladakh is a high-altitude plateau, a cold desert in the trans-Himalayan eastern region of J&K, bordered to the north by Pakistan-occupied-Kashmir and to the east by Tibet. To the west is the Kashmir Valley and to the south Lahaul and Spiti District of Himachal Pradesh. The Indus River bisects the plateau; by its banks sits Leh, the capital of Ladakh
Distances for Leh 431 km E of Srinagar, 474 km N of Manali
Route from Sri nagar NH1 D to Leh via Ganderbal, Sonamarg, Zoji La, Drass, Kargil, Mulbekh and Lamayuru Route from Manali SH to Leh via Rohtang Pass, Keylong, Baralacha La, Naki, Lachulung and Tanglang passes, Rumtse, Upshi and Thiksey
When to go Season lasts between June and September, when snow has melted enough to allow the passes to open. Winter flights make a snowy visit possible
Tourist Reception Centre, Leh
Tourist Info Centre
Residency Road, Srinagar
Tourist Reception Centre
Residency Road, Sri nagar
STD codes Leh 01982, Srinagar 0194
THINGS TO SEE AND DO
Because of the special conjunctures of its geography, history and climate, Ladakh seems foreign to those of us who have a strong idea of what Indianness is. This makes us use words like 'exotic' and 'romantic' about the place. And indeed, it is exotic, romantic, more Tibet than India, more 'differently' beautiful. Understanding the geography and history take us even closer to the heart of the mystique.
Ladakh lies at the topmost stretch of India, sharing its eastern borders with Tibet (or China, if you will) such that Lake Pangong Tso falls partly in Tibet and partly in India. The western regions of Ladakh are those made infamous by proximity to the Pakistan border, such as the town of Kargil, not tourist havens at all. North is the heavily contested Siachen area and Pak-occupied-Kashmir. Leh and its Buddhist monastery-villages lie more or less along the River Indus, in roughly the central part of Ladakh.
The first time we went to Leh, it was by the spectacular Manali-Leh two-day road journey, watching the terrain change from lush green, to snowy, to above-the- tree-line, to the fantastic shapes and colours of Ladakh's rocks. Having expended our rolls in taking photos, we moved about drunk with enchantment through Leh, looking for a photo developing shop, wanting to see the results now. There was Leh's mountain-oasis feeling, and the old town and its magic-world doors, and a smell of Bakarkhani rotis. The photo- developing gentleman turned out to be no less. We started taking out the rolls, he heard us out and refused to do the work. Get this done in Delhi, he said. The climate here is not suitable, the machines are not good enough. These photographs will be precious to you, don't take a risk. We weren't quite able to convey to him how precious he was. He'd turned down some thousand rupees' worth of work.
Encounters with goodness bring a dancing happiness, filled with which we skipped over to the inevitable German Bakery that populates Indian tourist centres. A teenager presided. We beamed at each other. Which are the fresh cakes, we enquired, we only want the fresh ones. He ran a serious eye over his entire cornucopia. "Aaj tooooooo" -- check, look at each, try to recall -- "koi bhi fresh nahin hai," he pronounced with satisfaction. We had many unfresh cakes, convinced that they couldn't possibly harm us.
In Leh, too, we saw a documentary on the ecologically-economically-socially- harmonized society that Ladakh used to be, and to some extent still is. In 1975, scholar and activist Helena Norberg- Hodge had, while doing research in a village, asked a boy how many people he would call "poor" among fellow villagers. He thought and said, "None." Ladakh was a society where no scrap was thrown away, everything was reused and recycled, even the toilets were built to turn faeces into compost. Walking through the fields we could still see how the irrigation channels of glacial waters were used cooperatively by farmers: each one would block the channel with stones and water her fields till sufficient, and then scrupulously remove the stones so that water would move on to other fields downstream. In these interdependent, un- wasteful ways, notions of sufficiency and sharing made sense but 'poverty' did not.
Needless to say, all Ladakh, especially Leh where people have to earn their in- come in a few months of the season, is not a haven of such values. (The documentary went on to say that when Helena visited the same village after many years, after 'development' and tourism had come to Leh, the same boy told her "do some- thing for us, we are so poor".) And yet. We are unable to separate the clarity of the air and the plenitude of the flowers and the silence in which the rivulet gurgles and the way the light dances off colourful pebbles ... from the inherent beauty of these ways of living, whatever is left of them. It's the best reason to go to Ladakh.
THE CULTURAL TREASURES
Gompa: A solitary place. Ladakh's gompas or Buddhist monasteries are wonderful in simultaneously maintaining their aura of solitary contemplativeness and their attraction for tourists, especially at festival time. Central Ladakh is home to long- standing traditions of the Vajrayana form of Buddhism, particularly fascinating to visitors for its Tantra elements, vivid colourful art, mystical feel and erotic imagery. Historically, Buddhism came to the area we call Ladakh around the 2nd or 1st century BCE (the earlier pantheistic practices were called Bon-chos). Central Ladakh saw the rise of Buddhism through- out the first millennium, fell under the rule of Tibetan kings, saw a lot of Tibetan migration, especially in the 8th and 9th centuries CE, and from the 11th century (as Buddhism declined in India), started finding inspiration in Tibetan Buddhism. The gompas we see today were mostly built from the 16th century onwards, once King Tashi Namgyal (around 1555- 1575) unified the Ladakh kingdom.
Air Nearest airport: Leh Airport (6 km/ 20 mins) is connected to Delhi by daily flights in season from Indian, Jet Airways and Deccan Air. It is also air-linked to Chandigarh, Srinagar and Jammu. Taxi into town is around Rs 150
Rail Nearest railhead: Jammu Tawi (724 Km/ 18-19 hrs). Proceed on NH1A to Sri nagar (300 km/8 hrs) by deluxe bus (fare Rs 220) or taxi (Rs 3,000). A shared taxi (Rs 440 per person) is a good option. For Srinagar-Leh details, see Road below
Road Ladakh is connected to Delhi by two routes - via Srinagar-Zoji La pass, and via Manali-Rohtang Pass-Baralacha La. Both are open between June and October. Both drives, though long, are beautiful road experiences. If driving to Leh, carry extra fuel as there are few petrol pumps. Manali-Leh (474 km/2-day drive). In season HPTDC operates a super deluxe service in the morning (11 am with Keylong night halt! 6 am with Sarchu night halt). Dinner, breakfast and tented accommodation at halt is included in the fare (Rs 1,600). Shared taxi (arr: same day) is about Rs 1 ,500; full taxi Rs 10,000 approx. Srinagar-Leh (435 km/2-day drive). Most buses start at 8 am from Sri nagar, halt overnight in Kargil and charge about Rs 600 per person. Taxis are most comfortable and do the trip in less time (11 hrs). Full taxis charge Rs 8,400; shared taxis charge Rs 1,200 per person (night halts at Kargil, not a must, are at an extra cost of Rs 500). For more info contact Irfan at Taxi Stand No.1, near Tourist Reception Centre, Srinagar; Tel: 0194-2452527. Bookings for buses and taxis can be made at the JKTDC Tourist Reception Centre in Sri
We visit a few of these. Leh's old city and its tunnel-like passages lie in the shadow of the nine-storey palace of King Sangye Namgyal, and the gompa above it. Hemis is the most well known of Ladakh's gompas, since its annual festival falls in the summer when one can visit easily. The festival is dedicated to Guru Padmasambhav and every 12 years the gompa's greatest treasure, a three-storey high thangka of the Guru, studded with pearls and precious stones, is unveiled. But for our money, Hemis village and monastery, well set back from the highway, is best visited in a month like September, when the trees are golden and the wind dances along. Built in the 1630s, Hemis is Ladakh's biggest and richest monastery.
Thiksey (mid-15th century) is another large gompa, impressively sprawled on a hillock above the village. The dark atmospheric main temple, like a large assembly hall, has old murals on the wall, mostly of scary-looking Tantric deities, often in sexual poses. There are wooden bookracks holding ancient manuscripts and the mystical smell of ghee and incense. The roof offers spectacular views. Both the Hemis and Thiksey monasteries are typical of gompas here, with massive walls, small windows, prayer flags, and from inside, a maze of tiny dark rooms and passages. Basgo used to be a capital of a branch of Ladakh's Namgyal dynasty, and while its fortifications are ruined, some lovely 15th-16th century murals can still be seen. Likir Gompa (the pre- sent building dating to the 18th century) enjoys a lovely location, being well off the highway and has a collection of old thangkas, images and manuscripts. You can also visit Stok Palace, the residence of the Namgyal dynasty since 1843, where a museum displays old thangkas, statues in bronze and gold, ornaments, and a sword twisted out of shape, it is said, by Tashi Namgyal himself!
Travelling to any of these places, we are offered fresh peas when we stop, happen on the most stunning green-gold views, meet the cheeriest of smiles, and go deeper into the heart of an inimitable windy silence. We agree that when we grow up, we want to become Ladakh.
TIP Return day-trip taxi charges from Leh: Hemis Rs 950; Thiksey Rs 650; Basgo Rs 1,500; Likir Rs 1,430; Stok Rs 800; Alchi Rs 1,800
WHERE TO STAY IN LEH
Khaana khaaaaya ... ? Gaana gaaaaya ... ? sings out Phuntsog, as she sees us sunk among her impossibly colourful flowers, gently digesting our lunch. Indeed, we have partaken the meal and sung the song. More so because the Oriental Guest House does not usually offer lunch. But Amit has twisted his ankle and cannot walk to the nearby restaurant. Phuntsog has asked the kitchen to feed us from the family's regular lunch, unlimited food as you would serve to any houseguest. I charge myself for this lunch on our official bill (at Oriental they give you a typed sheet saying 'lunch' or 'flask tea', and you tick the facilities you have used, and at the end of the stay its totalled up). When I present this sheet to Phuntsog, she comes across my mention of this lunch, grimaces, 10 oks at me as if to say "how could you?" and cuts it out.
The story is illustrative of much that we love about Ladakh. Smiling hosts who become friends with ease. An unafraid informality that doesn't fear "what if they eat extra but don't pay for it?" - and the larger theme that seems to run through civilization, "what if they are out to cheat me?" A lack of the pressure to make money all the time from everything.
Oriental Guest House (Tel: 01982- 253153; Tariff: Rs 700-1,500, with break- fast), hospitable, with lovely views, is in Changspa, a 20-min walk from the bazaar. Leh now boasts a huge, beautiful hotel with central heating, elevators, 24- hr room service and much besides - the Grand Dragon (Tel: 250786, 255866; Tariff: Rs 5,000-8,000, with breakfast). Hotel Omasila (Tel: 252119, 255248; Tariff: Rs 1,980-4,400, with all meals) is also a well-run, lovely place, about a 10- min walk from the bazaar.
timeless mystique of Alchi
Having almost got used to the remote beauty of Ladakh, we were still taken by surprise when we reached Alchi. The highway had meandered on, through mountains shaded pink and purple and green, windy desert flatlands, and rocks of bizarre shapes. It seemed like for hours we had seen no human being. When we came to the Indus at Saspol, hundreds of vivid prayer flags fluttered us across. After 4 km of twists and turns, we suddenly came to an emerald-green oasis hidden in the fold of the mountains, with poplars waving and nodding cheerily at us. This was Alchi village, with a population of just a few hundred, and its 11th-century chos-khor (religious enclave).
We ran down to the gompa, past shiny white single-storey houses, past intricate twisting trees, past the inevitable meltwater channel, having heard that Alchi was the jewel among Ladakh's gompas, with 12th century murals that were preserved (ie, they were not painted over, nor diminished by soot from lamps) because for some reason active worship stopped here in the 16th century.
The silent white gompa has five main shrines, of which the Dukhang (main temple) and Sumtsek (three-storey temple) are most important. They are guaranteed to take your breath away. Every centimetre of the dark interiors is covered with delicate, vibrant, exquisitely coloured millenium-old murals. There are mandalas (patterns illustrating the Buddhist cosmic order), portraits, scenes from secular life, and lovely depictions of the Goddess Tara (see above) and Bodhisattvas. The Sumtsek has huge two-storey high statues of the Bodhisattvas Avalokiteshwara, Maitreya and Manjushri. Just studying the knees of Avaloki- teshwara, covered with miniature paintings of palaces and pilgrim sites, took us oh so long.
We were prepared for the temple treasures. But what completely took us aback was the gift of the River Indus, a steep scramble down behind the monastery. We sat for hours, with no one in sight, on coloured rocks, among high mountains, feet dipped in this river. This civilisation-defining river, we thought, that gave its name to the Indus Valley Civilisation, from which the word 'India' was derived; this drop of water right there on our foot, was emerging from Tibet and going on to Pakistan. We never quite recovered from the intoxication of it.
For sheer atmosphere and old-world charm, you can stay at the Shambha-La (Tel: 252607, 253500; Tariff: Rs 2,500- 6,000, with all meals), 1 km out of town; closes for winter. The building has the loveliest rich dark wooden feel to it. If looking for something near the bazaar, there are many hotels in the Old Road and Fort Road area, and many guest houses in Changspa that are cheap and hospitable, but mostly closed in winter.
WHERE TO EAT IN LEH
Sitting in Leh View rooftop restaurant, we can Sip at a kahwa (Kashmiri tea with dried fruit and cardamom), while gazing at the bazaar below. We can see the fort, the Stok Range, shops of Little Khwaja and Useless Wali (trulyl), shops called Same Same But Different and Food Affair, Ecological Footprint Travels, the SBI ATM, and some 10 adventure/ trekking/ tours agencies. This is a microcosm of tourist Leh. You can sit at any other rooftop restaurant too, such as La Terrasse, and have your tea, beer, sandwich, pancake, roti-subzi, pizza, Kashmiri food ... These are all great places to sit and fatten and while away time beautifully.
The preponderance of foreign tourists means that bakeries offer pies, tarts and rolls. We befriended an American anthropologist, tucking into her pies with single- minded devotion everyday, before October came, season wound up and she was left with Ladakhi food for the winters. Tibetan Kitchen, on Fort Road, gives wonderful momos. Dreamland, near the bazaar, offers Continental dishes, Kashmiri yakhni, rista or gushtaba, and virgin cocktails. On the way to Changspa, Zen Garden, with its sound of running water, gives Thai, Italian and Israeli dishes.
Oriental Guest House gives lovely home-made veg food (only to guests), especially when Phuntsog's father takes charge. Five years down the line I have still not forgotten the 18 spinach-cheese momos he fed me (UKya balta hai 'accha hai'? Abhi bas pandrah to khaya!”).