On a warm September afternoon, my guide Rinchen Dorje takes me to the remains of Nyarma, a 1,000-year-old monastic complex. Pummelled by the elements and vandalised by medieval robbers, the formerly mud-walled compound with its numerous chortens, or shrines, and ancient temples has been slowly crumbling for centuries. But in one corner stands a stoutly intact temple, its whitewashed walls almost too bright in the dazzling Himalayan sunshine. A nun in maroon robes lingers by its cobbled porch. “The particular deity here,” explains Rinchen softly, “is worshipped by villagers for good harvests.” Later we clamber up a small nearby hill past a trio of chortens painted orange, white and blue. “That’s a kind of ‘protector monument’,” he continues. “Those colours represent wisdom, compassion and power.” A ruined little fortress crowns the hillock and its uppermost ramparts bristle with an upright bundle of dried willow leaves. “They’re changed every year, usually in May around the Buddha’s birthday.”
It’s as though I’ve stepped into an antiquarian but rather engaging travel journal. In a country imbued with spirituality where religion – Hinduism mainly – steers daily life, this Himalayan enclave is little different. Here Tibetan Buddhism is the dominant faith, and rather than the hot dusty plains and farmlands of lowland India, I’m faced with the magnificent vistas of the world’s greatest mountain range.
Far beyond stretches the broad expanse of the Indus Valley. Dotted with squat flat-roofed houses and strands of willow, a fat ribbon of pale green and straw-yellow fields shadows the Indus River. Beyond their crude stone walls, stark uncultivated plains make a gentle incline to the base of muscular hills and jagged ridges that rear skywards in shades of mauve, dun and grey. While the valley floor averages around 3,500m above sea level, many surrounding peaks nonchalantly touch 6,000m and more. This is still India, but perhaps not as you know it.
Ladakh derives its name from the Tibetan for “land of high passes”. Few seem to have heard of or can place this remote and thinly populated region. Now comprising the eastern half of Kashmir, it borders Pakistan and China (Tibet and Xinjiang Province) as well as Himachal Pradesh state; “Little Tibet” has long been a neat but simplistic moniker for its culture and geography. Once thriving on Silk Road caravans that navigated the torturous passes and treacherous deserts of the Himalayas and Central Asia, when communist China asserted control over Tibet and sealed regional borders in the 1950s an already dwindling caravan trade ceased altogether. Proximity to the contentious frontier with Pakistan (officially known as the Line of Control) ensures Ladakh’s strategic importance remains undimmed.
Around 500 tourists rolled up in 1974 when it first opened to foreign visitors. By 2016, official Ministry of Tourism figures indicated 235,608 arrivals, an astonishing 60 per cent increase on 2015, mostly domestic visitors. The trend looks set to continue. For the majority of Indians Ladakh is as exotic as the Sahara or the Amazon, yet from food to road signs to the huge army presence, still recognisably Indian. For foreign visitors, Ladakh is an almost idyllic version of a Buddhist Paradise, a trekkers’ Shangri-la whose warm culture has (unlike that of neighbouring Tibet) endured largely unchanged and without interference.
One crisp morning just after dawn, Rinchen and I head up to Thiksey Monastery, an extraordinary 15th-century pile occupying a rugged bluff. It’s among Ladakh’s most imposing and wealthiest monasteries, and we make for the main assembly hall to join monks in their morning prayers. This ritual begins with conch shells blown from its roof, their resonant bleats seeping down to the village below and across the great valley beyond. We sit on rugs up against walls swirling with extraordinary murals of deities and demons, the monks’ hypnotic chanting punctuated with sudden bursts of thumping drums and raucous horns. Boy monks distribute salty butter tea – something of an acquired taste – from fat kettles and I politely down a cup.
Two hours later I’m downing something that would have been unthinkable here a decade ago – a pomegranate smoothie. Smoothies of any variety are unusual fare in Ladakh but then so is my accommodation: a luxurious tented camp near the foot of Thiksey pitched on monastery-owned fields. Opened in 2013, it’s the sort of place where a high-end clientele (some of whom arrive on private jets) can dine on lobster and lamb. If that sounds horribly indulgent, the experience is tempered by having some of Ladakh’s best guides in a camp that’s stylish rather than flashy and frivolous.
Rajnish Sabharwal, CEO of The Ultimate Travelling Camp, admits the logistics of operating any upmarket accommodation here are challenging. “Ladakh’s bitter winters are really harsh on the infrastructure. And although we try and grow some of our produce, much still has to be trucked or flown in.” But for daily flights from Delhi and Srinagar, Ladakh is essentially cut off through the winter. Four of the world’s highest motorable roads lead from Leh, the capital, and their annual late-spring opening is invariably reported in the media. The unforgettable road journey here can be as arduous as it is spectacular. “Most of our guests fly in,” adds Sabharwal, “so we insist on an initial rest day – acclimatisation is really important.”
Notwithstanding the Indus Valley’s dozen or so monasteries, Ultimate Travelling Camp encourages other excursions. You might stroll among tranquil hamlets watching farmers or harvests, or raft the Indus or even drive to a 5,300m pass and cycle back to the valley in an absurdly exhilarating ride. But few skip a visit to Hemis, Ladakh’s most famous and richest monastery. Hidden away in a side valley, a huge mani wall, its stones individually inscribed with prayers and mantras, heralds its abrupt appearance behind hilly ramparts. Built in the 1670s, Hemis’s flagstone courtyard and massive assembly halls host an annual summer festival drawing thousands of pilgrims and tourists to its theatrical parables and extraordinary masked-monk dancers.
Though provincial, Leh is a very likeable place. Beyond the earthy bazaars and backstreets, it’s among the winding alleys and tunnel-lanes of Old Leh that you might just sense the old days of mule caravans and their hardy merchants. Looming overhead is the imposing hulk of a 16th-century royal palace. Modelled on Lhasa’s Potala, it’s lain largely empty since the 1830s though long-standing neglect has been reversed. The fine views from its terrace are more than matched higher up the hill from a pair of temples sprouting from the crags.
Historically Ladakh’s relatively short tourist season – May to September – hasn’t encouraged luxury accommodation. Yet as is often the case, where budget travellers and backpackers blaze a trail, others will follow. Filmed in 2008 and with some memorable scenes shot in the Ladakhi wilds, Bollywood hit 3 Idiots proved a significant fillip to the region’s profile among domestic audiences.
Coincidentally that same year, Shakti Ladakh was the first plush tour operator to venture into the region. A Mumbaikar by birth but schooled in Darjeeling, founder Jamshyd Sethna had long adored the Himalayas. “In hard times, they give succour,” he intones earnestly. Sethna’s approach was unique: he sought family-sized houses in three Indus Valley villages, leased and completely upgraded them (“bathrooms are really important for this to work!”) and trained locals – including at least one member of the house-owning family – to run the show.
“In hard times, the Himalayas give succour”
Now boasting seven properties, Shakti’s approach still deliberately avoids Leh and focuses instead on rural villages where traditional life remains more deeply rooted. Local priests might drop in to give talks on Buddhism and easy-going village-to-village walks with picnic lunches are popular with his clientele; longer treks overnighting in simple tents are also on offer. “Although tourism is certainly now booming,” he adds, “our guests rarely notice this as few tourists head out to these villages anyway.”
Yet there’s one village on the Shakti itinerary tourists are more than likely to visit. Stok lies in the shadow of 6,153m Stok Kangri, one of the area’s most popular “trekking peaks”, and its five-storey palace and small museum illuminate the lives and heritage of Ladakh’s erstwhile royal family. Built in the 1820s as a summer retreat, its construction proved timely. Within a decade the Namgyal dynasty (which had ruled a unified Ladakh for three centuries) was defeated by Sikh invaders and King Tsepal Namgyal was banished to Stok. Today his descendant Jigmed Namgyal still resides with his family in Stok’s palace. Of its 77 rooms, six are open to guests along with three “villas” nestling in a nearby orchard.
Most visitors aim for the museum and its collection of heirlooms, photographs and religious paraphernalia. Perhaps the most extraordinary exhibit is the queen’s “crown”, a kind of headdress bordered with pearls, studded with turquoise and banded with gold nuggets. Reputedly first worn in the seventh century by the Chinese wife of a celebrated Tibetan king, it reached Ladakh in the 1700s and was worn by every subsequent queen. There are other oddities, too, from a bizarre knotted sword to a trumpet made from a human thighbone.
Namgyal’s passion these days is architecture. “In 2016 I built those villas in the local vernacular [essentially dried earth bricks roofed with poplar beams, hay and mud-plaster] because this is the only sustainable method. We need to revive these kinds of traditions…” He laments the now widespread use of cement and steel, all trucked up from the plains. Its cost is both financial and aesthetic. Yet Namgyal clearly isn’t a Luddite yearning for a rose-tinted past. “Tourism has brought huge economic changes. More and more Ladakhis live in greater comfort; the roads are better, the standard of living’s risen – it’s no longer just subsistence farming.”
There are other changes here, too – demographic (from more Bihari labourers to Kashmiri shopkeepers) and climatic (less snow, more rain) in particular. But nowhere stays the same, nor is any destination perfect – though for my money Ladakh comes pretty close. You might want to go sooner rather than later.