Ladakh

Ladakh is a mountainous region in northeast Jammu and Kashmir in north India and in the area known as the Trans-Himalaya (the lands beyond the Himalaya: Tibet, Xinjiang and northern Pakistan). It's slightly smaller than Scotland, and is the largest, but least populated, region of Jammu and Kashmir. The settled population lives between 2,700 m and 4,500 m, and in nomadic encampments even higher.

The people are a roughly 50-50 mixture of Buddhist and Muslim. Buddhists are the majority in the east, Muslims in the north and west. Travellers are likely to see more of the Buddhists as most of the tourist attractions are in the east and directly related to Tibetan Buddhist culture.

The largest town is Leh, followed by Kargil. Ladakh is subdivided into two districts, which are named after the two towns. Kargil District is in the west and consists of Drass (famed as the second-coldest inhabited place on the earth with recorded temperatures of -56 °C or -69 °F), Suru, Chiktan and Batalik-Garkon. Leh District (Urdu:ضلع لہ) is the eastern part of Ladakh.

One branch of the ancient Silk Road ran through Ladakh and was a fairly important trade route at one time, for example when Marco Polo crossed it. A pass leads north from Leh to Khotan in what is now Xinjiang. From Leh there are several routes south; the main one involved following the Indus down to Srinagar, and in ancient times to Taxila.

Cities

Other destinations

Frozen Nerak Falls, Zanskar River, February 2013

Understand

A yak in the Markha Valley of Ladakh

Ladakh was an independent kingdom for nine centuries, influenced by Tibet and the neighbouring Muslim region. Linguistically, Ladakhi is very closely related to Tibetan. Tibet had long been where Ladakhi Buddhists would go for higher religious education, but since the incorporation of Tibet into China, Ladakhis have made the much shorter trip to the Tibetan monasteries in India. The architecture of Ladakh is almost identical to that of Tibet, both of residential buildings and of the monasteries. The class structure, or more precisely the lack of a sharply defined class structure, is common to Tibet and Ladakh and is in sharp contrast to the rest of India. Related to this is the relatively high status, freedom, and outspokenness of Buddhist women in Ladakh and Tibet.

Common to both cultures are a set of cultural practices that keep the population from growing larger than the land can support, and prevent a farm from being divided up and thus being unable to support a family. These are listed below:

However, Tibet was far from the only influence on Ladakh. Whereas Tibet was largely closed off to outside influence, Ladakh was a nation where caravan trade played an important role. Traders from the neighbouring Muslim lands (both Kashmir and East Turkestan, now the Xinjiang province of China) were a common sight in Leh's bazaar until the 20th century. The folk music is based on the styles of the Muslim parts of the Western Himalayas. Polo was imported from these lands and enjoys popularity to this day with Ladakhis, regardless of faith.

Over the decades, the relationship between Buddhists and Muslims in Ladakh has deteriorated. This is possibly due to the complex roles of the communities as minorities relative to each other — Muslims are a minority in Leh, a majority in J&K, and a minority in India; Buddhists are the majority in Leh, but a minority in J&K to Muslims and in India to Hindus — and possibly due to the importation of identity politics from the rest of India. Whatever the true reason, it has never erupted into the kind of violence seen elsewhere in India at times. It may, however, take the sheen out of a place that seems remarkably idyllic, when a new friend says something that's hard not to hear as racist.

Geography

The Indus valley is the Ladakhi heartland, with the highest population density, and large amounts of agricultural land. Running parallel with it, roughly north-east south-west, are a series of valleys and mountain ranges. North of the Indus valley is the Ladakh range, on the other side of which is the Shayok, and Nubra valleys. South of the Indus is the Stok range, clearly visible from Leh. On the other side is the Markha valley is a popular trekking destination. Farther south-west is a series of minor ranges and uninhabited valleys before we come to Zangskar. The Kargyak and the Stod rivers join at Padum, to form the Zangskar river which bucks the trend and flows north through a narrow gorge to join the Indus. To the south of Zangskar is the Grand Himal range marking the southern limit of Ladakh.

To the east of this series of ranges is the Changtang, a high plateau home to nomads. It is known as Kharnak in the west, Samad Rokchen in the north east and Korzok in the south east. Not a true plateau, it has a chaotic assortment of minor mountains ranges not much higher than the wide valleys between them. With no drainage leading out of this area, there are a number of beautiful salt water lakes that make popular destinations for tourists.

Fauna

The animals of Ladakh have much in common with the animals of Central Asia generally, and especially those of the Tibetan Plateau.

Birds

An exception to this, are the birds, many of which migrate from the warmer parts of India to spend the Summer in Ladakh. Birds are also, rather predictably, the easiest form of wildlife for tourists to see, and the only thing tourists who don't leave the paved roads, and villages, can be sure to see. For such an arid area, Ladakh may surprise you with the variety of birds, a total of 225 species have been recorded.

The Indian redstart and hoopoe both summer in Ladakh and are very common. Surprisingly, the brown-headed hull is seen in summer on the Indus, and on some lakes of the Changthang. Other migratory water birds include the Brahimini duck, ruddy sheldrake, and the barhead goose.

The black necked crane is famous due to its extreme rarity. It is found only in Ladakh and Tibet. Other specifically high altitude birds are the Tibetan raven, red-billed chough, snow-cock and chukor.

There are two main raptors in Ladakh. The lammergeier, a vulture, is relatively common here. It's unusual in that its head has feathers, unlike most vultures. The golden eagle, also found in Ladakh, is closely related and outwardly the same as found in North America.

Ungulates

Hunting by British so called "sportsmen" during colonial rule, and more recently unofficially by the Indian army, has taken its toll on the wildlife population. In recent years however things have been improving due to greater popular awareness of the value of wildlife, an awareness that has spread as far as reaching some members of the army.

The ibex is found in high craggy terrain, it still numbers several thousand in Ladakh, and trekkers often spot them.

The bharal, or Blue Sheep, is even more common, ranging in the Himalayas from Ladakh east as far as Sikkim. Its unusual in that it is neither a true sheep nor true goat, but has characteristics of both.

The shapo, or urial, is a goat, found at lower elevations, mostly in river valleys, and therefore is often directly in competition with domesticated animals. They are now rare, numbering about one thousand.

The argali or nayan is a relative of the Marco Polo Sheep of the Pamirs. They are impressive animals with huge horizontal curving horns. They are extremely rare in Ladakh, numbering only a couple hundred; however, they do have a wide range throughout mountainous areas of the Chinese Provinces of Xinjiang, Qinghai, and Gansu.

The chiru or Tibetan antelope, known in Ladakhi as tsos, is also endangered. It has traditionally been hunted for its wool, which must be pulled out by hand, a process done after the animal is killed. The wool obtained from the chiru is called shahtoosh, and is valued in South Asia for its lightweight and warmth, but more than anything else, as a status symbol. Early in the 20th century the chiru was seen in herds numbering in the thousands, surviving on remarkably sparse vegetation, but sadly, they are very rare now. The owning or trading in dhahtoosh is now illegal in most countries.

The kyang, or Tibetan wild ass, is one animal that visitors can expect to see from the comfort of a vehicle, if they take a Jeep tour on the Changthang. They favor the rolling grasslands of this area, and with their natural curiosity makes them fairly easy to spot, despite the relatively low numbers, about 1500 individuals. They often seem to be drawn by their curiosity toward a jeep, or trekkers, only to be overcome with shyness and run away. The tendency to repeat this a number of times is most endearing.

Predators

None of the predators of Ladakh are a safety concern to trekkers, it is people who are a danger to these animals.

The snow leopard, is justifiably famous. It once ranged throughout the Himalayas, Tibet, and as far as the Sayan Mountains on the Mongolian-Russian border; and in elevation from 1800m to 5400m. They are extremely shy, and very hard to spot, and as such not well known, it is believed there are about 200 in Ladakh. While tourists are unlikely to see the cats themselves, during winter sightings of the footprints and other marks are not uncommon. Tourists that want to see Snow Leopards should visit during the winter, as at this time the cats descend to lower altitudes, and are more active as prey is harder to find, befriending one of the biologists who come to Ladakh to study Snow Leopards would also help.

Other cats in Ladakh are even rarer than the snow leopard, if not as impressive, the lynx, numbering only a few individuals, and the Pallas's cat, who looks outwardly like a house cat.

The Tibetan wolf is the greatest threat to the livestock of the Ladakhis and as such is the most persecuted; there are only about 300 wolves left in Ladakh. They look unremarkable, and outwardly the same as wolves seen in Europe and the Americas.

There are also a few brown bears in the Suru valley and the area around Dras. They are not a threat to trekkers; however common sense should be exercised. Do not feed or approach any wild animals.

Small animals

Marmots are common. It is possible to sometimes see them from the road, although they don't look different enough to the marmots common to other mountainous areas of the world to be of much interest.

There are also plenty of voles, hares, and several types of pika.

Further reading

Leh's many excellent bookshops offer a wide variety of books on Ladakh, Buddhism and Islamic history; general reading. They are well worth visiting, and have many titles not available outside India. Some recommended titles on Ladakh are:

Ladakh, Crossroads of High Asia, by Janet Rizvi. An entirely enjoyable, meticulously researched overview of Ladakhi culture, history, economy and geography. It never lets its precision and accuracy get in the way of its approachability and personalness.

Ancient Futures, by Helena Norberg-Hodge. A passionate explanation of, and plea for, the preservation of the traditional values of Ladakh. A remarkable work despite its occasional lack of balance, it is an influential book and a must read for all visitors to Ladakh.

Talk

The language of Ladakh is Ladakhi, a Tibetan dialect, with written Ladakhi being the same as Tibetan. Tibetans can learn Ladakhi easily but Tibetan is difficult to speak for Ladakhis. Spoken Ladakhi is closer to the Tibetan spoken in Western Tibet. The Ladakhi language is a shared culture platform which brings the Muslims and Buddhists together as one people of this Himalayan region.

Ladakhis usually know Hindi and often English, but in villages without road access, neither can be expected. A high-quality Ladakhi phrasebook, Getting Started in Ladakhi, by Melong Publications, is available in Leh and well worth getting. Not only will any attempts you make to speak the language be appreciated, they will be useful.

Julley is the most commonly used word for greeting, saying bye and thank you.

Get in

Buses run directly to Leh from either Manali or Srinagar. En route to Leh one can stop in a number of places; most will get off in Keylong, the administrative center for Lahaul. Overlooking Keylong is the Kardang monastery. This is the choice that most travelers will want to take due to the tense security situation in Kashmir; however, the road is open only from June to mid October, due to snowfall. There are shared taxis from Manali which start early in the morning and reach Leh early next morning. Tourist buses from HPTDC and the local HRTC buses stop overnight in Keylong. There are also minibuses and shared cabs that make an overnight stop in Sarchu - this comes with a high incidence of altitude sickness, since Sarchu (also dubbed "The Vomit Hilton") lies more than 700m higher than Leh, at 4253m. Coming from Srinagar there are a few interesting places to stop en route: Kargil at 2693m (where the buses stops, the best choice for altitude acclimatization), Lamayuru and Alchi (that also offer accommodation). The opening and final closing of both roads, but no major events in between, are announced on the official Leh website. Srinagar-Leh news updates are found here, and Manali-Leh here.

Daily flights to Leh are run by Indian and Jet Airways from Delhi, Srinagar, Jammu and elsewhere. These are, however, subject to inclement weather and may be cancelled at any time, so keep your schedule flexible. Altitude sickness is also a worry.

You can ride to Leh by motorcycle between June and mid-October (when the roads are open). Bikers usually follow either of the 2 routes:

  1. Delhi -> Ambala -> Jalandhar -> Patni Top -> Srinagar -> Kargil -> Leh
  2. Delhi -> Chandigarh -> Manali -> Sarchu -> Pang -> Leh

Get around

Ladakh Highway No. 3

By bus

Ladakhi buses run from Leh to the surrounding villages. They are often overcrowded and generally disorganised and poorly run. Daily buses or mini buses run to Alchi, Basgo, Dha-Hanu, Likir, Nimmu, and Saspul; twice daily to Chemray, Hemis, Matho, Stok, and Tak Tok; hourly or more often to Choglamsar, Phyang, Shey, Spituk, Stakna, Thiksay.

By taxi

You will find in Leh a number of local taxis, that will take you to the surrounding monasteries much faster and more comfortably than Public transport. Rates are fairly steep compared to elsewhere in India.

By truck

Trucks often stop for hitchhikers, who are usually expected to pay half the bus fare, bargaining may be necessary. They are slower than the buses and sometimes stop for long periods to unload cargo.

By motorcycle

In Leh there are a number of shops that will rent motorbikes, mostly the Royal Enfield, still made in India today (350 and 500 cc model). Rentals are fairly cheap, and if you are used to old bikes and left hand side driving, it is certainly a great way to move around and far cheaper than local taxis. Be sure to check your rented bike before you leave so that you don't find yourself stranded in the middle of nowhere.

Things to note

  1. In most sections of the journey, the roads are in a bad condition, but in certain conditions the roads are literally non-existent. However, the Border Roads Organisation (BRO) has done a good job, with whatever little resources that are available, in making the difficult terrain accessible to vehicular traffic.
  2. Though there are many mechanics in Leh who deal with many bikes, the availability of spares is limited. So before leaving be sure to get your bike serviced (get all cables checked/ changed, set chain, get oil topped up, brakes inspected etc.) and also carry all necessary spares (cables, chain link, bulbs etc.)
  3. Make sure to carry the originals of all your bike's documents.
  4. Glaciers tend to melt as the day progresses and flow across roads at some places. Be sure to plan to reach and cross these glacier melts, commonly known as Nalas (for example Pagal nala, Khooni nala, Whiskey nala, Brandy nala etc.), during the earlier part of the day, when the flow is low and the depth of the water is still easily passable.
  5. When you encounter a military convoy, always pull over and let them pass. It might be a good idea to find out from the locals as to when the convoy goes uphill and downhill and try to time your trip accordingly.

By bicycle

The scenery is magnificent viewed at the pace of a bicycle, however one would need to be well prepared with full camping equipment. There is a bit less than 1000 km of paved roads in Ladakh. The Manali-Leh-Srinagar road makes up about half of that and the remainder are spurs off it. As such it's not possible to string together a loop, and the only route that would avoid backtracking would be to follow the Manali-Leh-Srinagar road. You would need to check the current situation and think carefully. You may decide that travelling in Kashmir at bicycle pace is more of a risk than you want to take.

In addition to the paved roads there are some trekking routes that are possible to ride a lightly loaded, sturdy mountain bike on, perhaps hiring a horse and handler to take your baggage. Padam to Darcha, via Shingo La (pass) would be a good route for this, though you would still need to push your bike over the pass itself. Ask trekkers in Ladakh for more options.

By foot

For the traveler with a number of months it is possible to trek from one end of Ladakh to the other, or even from places in Himachal Pradesh. The large number of trails and the limited number of roads allows you to string together routes that have road access often enough to restock supplies, but almost entirely avoid walking on motor roads. See below in the Do section for more info.

Note:

If you plan to drive/ ride in to the Ladakh region in your own car/ bike:

  1. Carry enough spares and all the required tools.
  2. Try to learn basic vehicle maintenance before you start on the trip.
  3. Carry spare fuel. (There is a 380km stretch on the Leh–Manali highway that has no petrol pumps.)
  4. You will need to get permits to visit certain places (for example, Khardung La).

See

Wall painting of Chanme Zang, one of the four Cardinal Kings, at Lamayuru Monastery

Many places in Ladakh need an Inner Line Permit which is available for free in DC's office in Ladakh. A travel agent can also arrange the permit for ₹100 per person within an hour on any working day.

The main tourist sites relate to Tibetan Buddhism, mainly gompas (Buddhist monasteries), and to the stunning landscape. Ladakh is not only home to some of the most beautiful and serene monasteries you'll ever see, but it also a land of rich natural beauty - and it's this natural beauty that hits you so hard, because it's a barren beauty. Many travelers find themselves at loss to understand how something so barren can yet be so beautiful. Be respectful, these are holy places and active monks in most of them.

Many of the monasteries in the area can be visited from Leh, including the Hemis monastery which is the largest monastery of Ladakh with at least 150 lamas. Also, many of the villages in the area are worth a visit, including some close to Leh and some in Nubra Valley or Zanskar.

Must-see landscapes include the Moon-land-view in the area around Lamayuru on the Leh-Kargil highway, and Pangong Tso which is a 40 miles long lake with a lovely colour of its water

Itineraries

Passing Tso Kar

There are some regular tourist circuits which entail driving 200-400 km roundtrip out of Ladakh. One needs to acclimatize to the attitude in Leh (3500 m) before heading out as AMS (acute mountain sickness or altitude sickness) can ruin the entire trip.

Do

Trekking

Below are a few selected routes:

The Baby Trek

Duration: 2-3 days

Season: Year round

Get In: The trail starts at Likir, there are a few buses from Leh daily.

Description Ladakh's one "tea house trek" is, despite the name, hard work due to the steep and frequent ascents and descents. Its highest point is 3750 m (unusually low for Ladakh). It passes through frequent villages, allowing the traveler to sleep in guest houses or peoples' homes every night. It is a good introduction to trekking in Ladakh and way to acclimatize to the altitude. The main attractions of this trek are the large villages filled with beautiful, well-made houses seated among good agricultural land. The mountains and views from the passes are relatively unimpressive.

Route Likir village - Phobe La (3580 m)- Sumdo village - Chagatse La (3630 m) - Yangthang village - Tsermangchen La (3750 m) - Hemis Shukpachen village - Mebtak La (3720 m) - Ang village - Tingmosgam village.

Maps

General travel maps showing the roads and tourist sites are commonly available in India and abroad.

The best quality trekking maps are nowhere near the quality of maps covering trekking areas of Europe or North America. Note that high-quality maps of the border regions of India/Pakistan/China are illegal in India for security reasons, and your map may be confiscated if you allow security personnel to see it (despite very high quality maps of Indian J&K and the LoC being available from the Survey of Pakistan in Islamabad).

Eat

Ladakhi food has much in common with Tibetan food, the most prominent foods being: Thukpa, noodle soup; and tsampa, known in Ladakhi as ngamphe — roasted barley flour, which is edible without cooking and therefore it makes useful, if dull, trekking food.

A dish that is strictly Ladakhi is skyu, a heavy pasta dish with root vegetables.

As Ladakh moves toward a less sustainable, cash-based economy, imported Indian foods are becoming more important. You are likely to be served rice and dal (lentils) with veggies even in villages without road access, and it's standard in Leh.

In Leh you can taste a wide range of cuisines, which include north Indian, Tibetan, Chinese, Italian and even Korean. Bakeries are plentiful in Leh town. As in other heavily touristed areas of the Himalaya, they often claim to be German bakeries. They serve seasonal fruit pies, tarts, brownies and a variety of breads.

Drink

Stay safe

Ladakh is one of the safest parts of India, and the most basic precautions against petty theft are enough to keep you and your possessions safe. The locals are very friendly and humble. Most of the region is dotted with military cantonments every 50-80 km, but mainly because of its strategic position on international border between India and China. The army plays a major part in rescue and aid efforts, and that is why you will be required to produce identification documents or written permission from local authorities before entering some remote places.

Stay healthy

Leh is above 3,500 m (over 11,000 feet) and other parts of Ladakh are higher yet. There is risk of altitude sickness, especially for those who come from a lower altitude quickly, such as by flying in.

Those with specific health problems should carry any medication that they need.

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