Ladakh is on of the most isolated, sparely populated regions on the planet. Located at the far North-West of India’s Himalayan frontiers (bordering Chinese occupied Tibet and Pakistani-administered Kashmir), its culture has more in common with Tibet than it does with anywhere else in India. Ladakh means ‘Land of the Passes’ and situated in the centre of this unusual place in a wide green valley, is its capital Leh. There are only two roads into Ladakh and both are only open between the months of May and October – for the rest of the year the region is cut off and goes into hibernation for the severe winter; all this gives it a special energy for the summer months and it’s here I base myself for five interesting weeks.
I stay in a quiet gueshouse just off the main tourist strip on the edge of town where the streets turn into country lanes which pass through fields and vegetable patches. Ladakh is supposed to be a high-altitude desert but soon after I arrive, it rains continuously for 4 days. With constant power shortages and problems with internet connections (the blame for this largely lies the Indian army whose presence is as massive here as in the rest of Jammu and Kashmir state) I spend a lot of time reading and enjoying the relaxed vibe of the place. Peak tourist season is just around the corner and with it waves of Israelis who’ve just finished their national service and flock to this part of India to smoke copious amounts of weed. This alone is good enough incentive to plan an escape from the town. Luckily John (the affable Scot who I met in hospital in Jaipur during the Vipassana course) is an experienced trekker and arrives the week after myself so we organise a couple of week-long treks, as both of us are keen to see the surrounding mountains and landscapes (more about these treks in the following posts).
One rainy morning we head with some English friends of John’s to a Buddhist festival an hour’s bus ride away at an old monastery. We watch some of the dance performances and admire the dazzling artwork inside the monastery itself (no pictures allowed !) before treating ourselves to hot Tibetan noodles. I find the monotonous custume dances somewhat of an anti-climax and the atmosphere a bit lethargic but then remember that this isn’t for entertainment…it’s a religious festival. Despite not really knowing what’s going on, the 300 year surroundings of the monastery are worth seeing and makes me want to learn more about Ladakhi culture and Tibetan Buddhism in general.
Before going off on a trek, the weather returns to blue skies and a blazing sun. The colours in this part of the world appear more vivid due to the high altitude and thin air. At 3524 metres, Leh is the highest place I’ve ever been and it takes over a weeks to feel like exerting myself physically. A couple of walks up to the Stupa (Buddhist monument) overlooking the town help acclimatise and are a reminder of why I’ve chosen to spend weeks in this region as the views of the town and surrounding mountains are worth the trip alone.