To typify Ladakh as a lunar landscape would be injustice. The multi-faceted region is simply the Land of Epithets, say ANURAG MALLICK & PRIYA GANAPATHY
‘Ladakh? It’s like the surface of the moon.’ Usually, that’s the first thing people say while describing Ladakh. And it’s no surprise that Ladakh’s lunar landscape causes some degree of lunacy in the people who go there! Travellers have attempted to cover it in every possible way – some do it solo, some fly, some go overland on motorcycles or jeeps, some even on bicycles! We happened to hitchhike our way back to Manali in a truck. Doctors blame it on the rarefied air. But there is a fascination with this stark, rugged land that urges people to push themselves in ways they never have.
To classify Ladakh as a lunar Landscape would be injustice. It simply is, the Land of Epithets. Ladakh or Ladag, the Land of the Split Moon, has been called by different names, all of which are its diverse manifestations. It was earlier Manyul, The Land of Men, and also Ladwags, Land below the Mountain Passes. To some, it was Bladwags or Land of the Lama. To others Maryul, The Red Country. To Ladakhi nomads, it was Muah Ris Ssor Gsum, Land to the West of Tibet. To the geographically ignorant West, it was Little Tibet! And to poets, Ladakh was the Last Shangri-la. That’s an unusually long list of names for a region that has one of the lowest population densities in the world. Two inhabitants per kilometre; three in tourist season!
Hemmed in by the Karakorams in North and the Himalayas to the South, the mountainous terrain spreads over 59,000 sq km. At one time Ladakh was no man’s land, accessed only by different nomadic tribes, some who chose to settle down. Ladakh’s predominantly Mongoloid element came about when Skilde Numagan invaded it after being driven out by his brother, the King of Tibet. This became the starting point of a dynasty that lasted 8 centuries. After Wazir Zorawar Singh invaded Ladakh In 1842, it became a part of India. Ever since it was opened to foreign visitors in 1974-75, Ladakh has witnessed a phenomenal growth in tourism.
The best way to get a glimpse of the lofty peaks and the majestic grandeur of the Himalayas range is aboard the 70-minute flight from Delhi to Leh or a 2-day road trip from Manali. But while some remain snared in the luxury of Leh, the intrepid visit the beautiful monasteries of Ladakh or trek through its interiors. Sometimes, it takes days before you see any living being. The common Sea-Buckthorn shrub found usually near rivers, teems with White-winged Redstarts and Black-throated Thrushes while the river is good for Ibisbills. Besides Kiang (Tibetan Wild Ass), the Tibetan Big Four (Snowcock, Sandgrouse, Partridge and Lark) are found only on the Tibetan Plateau, a long drive east of Leh. Here’s a one-week itinerary that packs in the best of everything from monasteries and palaces to high altitude lakes.
Day 1: Leh Sightseeing Tour
After crossing endless miles of the high Himalayan ranges, as the plane prepares to land on an asphalt runway in a dustbowl you wonder if you are going to make it. The stewardess announces the temperature outside and you know you have indeed landed. At 10,682 ft, Kushak Bakula Rinpoche is one of the highest airports in the world. The drive to Leh town is short and the remaining day is free for leisure or acclimatization. Visit Leh Market, a centuries old Trans-Himalayan trading post, and the ruins of the Royal Palace built by Sengge Namgyal (1612-42) across nine levels. From the summit, one can see Khardung La to the north, Tsemo Gompa atop a cliff to the east, the Japanese Stupa and Sankar Gompa to the west and the majestic snowclad Stok Kangri (6130 m) to the south. With the Polo grounds and Trishul, the highest golf course in the world at 11,500 ft, you can practically see most of Leh town.
Day 2: Leh to Thiksey, Hemis, Chemdrey and Taktok monastery
Have early tea/coffee and leave with packed breakfast for the famous Thiksey Gompa, one of the most beautiful monasteries in the region. Perched on a hillock and nicknamed ‘Little Potala’, the monastery houses an ethereal turquoise studded stucco statue of Maitreya Buddha across two levels. Monks gather for morning prayers before dawn (6am) and the air resonates with their chants accompanied by drums and horns. After breakfast, drive to Hemis monastery, 30 km southwest of Thiksey. Hemis is the largest and wealthiest monastery in Ladakh. The Hemis festival, considered amongst the biggest and most famous monastic festivals, is dedicated to Padmasambhava. Every 12 years, the gompa’s greatest treasure, a huge Thangka, is ritually exhibited. A further drive towards the north takes you to Chemdrey and Taktok monasteries before you can head back to Leh. If time permits, drive to the Shanti stupa to see the Japanese Peace Pagoda and Sankar monastery.
Day 3: Leh to Uleytokpo via Basgo palace, Likir and Alchi monastery
After breakfast, drive on the Leh-Kargil highway to Lamayuru, en route visiting Kali Mata Temple and Gurudwara Patthar Sahib. Cocooned in the craggy mountains the gurudwara was built by the Lamas of Leh in 1517 to commemorate the visit of Guru Nanak. A 4km drive deposits you at Magnetic Hill which defies the law of gravity. Strangely, vehicles parked in neutral gear on the metallic road seem to be magically dragged upwards! Drive through a picturesque landscape to the confluence of the Indus and Zanskar River, 4km before Nimmu village. Visit Basgo, certainly the most impressive of Ladakhi citadels despite its ruined state. This endangered site was built using mud bricks and packed earth in the 16-17th century. The fortress houses three shrines dedicated to Maitreya, the fifth Buddha. The largest statue is a towering 14m high mud sculpture of a gilded Maitreya, encircled by exquisite murals depicting scenes from his life and portraits of rich patrons who constructed the temple complex. You could also visit Likir gompa located on a windy tor hovering above the village of Likir. Drive and cross the River Indus to reach Alchi, a 11th century monastery that displays a delicate blend of Tibetan and Kashmiri art. From here drive to Uleytokpo and camp for the night.
Day 4: Uleytokpo to Leh via Lamayuru, Spituk and Rizong
Start early to reach Lamayuru, a monastery belonging to the Dripung Kagyu (Red Hat) sect. Founded in 11th century, Lamayuru is perched on a spur high above the valley just off the main road and is easily one of the most striking monasteries in central Ladakh. It is also touted to be the oldest monastery in this region as long before the advent of Buddhism, it was the sacred place of the Bon-Chos. Explore the village of Lamayuru at the foothill before returning to Leh along the Srinagar-Leh highway. En route don’t forget to visit the Rizong Gompa/nunnery and Spituk monastery on the banks of the Indus River. The Gompa exemplifies the meaning of Spituk, which is ‘to show by good example’. Counted among oldest gompas in the region, it has been practising this philosophy for over 300 years though the Spituk tradition itself is well over 1000 years old.
Day 5: Leh to Pangong Lake via Shey Palace
After early breakfast leave for Pangong Tso (tso means ‘lake’). En route visit the palace at Shey, the ancient capital of Ladakh. The stark tiered complex with tiny windows crowns a hill above the village while a tiny marshy lake wraps around the base. Drive through the 5486m high Chang La (la means ‘pass’) towards Pangong Tso, situated at 14,000ft (4,267m). This sheet of crystal water measures 6-7km at its widest point and is about 130km long. Since it is bisected by the international border between India and China, the lake and its surroundings are under army surveillance but the government decided to open it to tourists a few years ago. Stay overnight at a camp on the lakeshore.
Day 6: Pangong Lake to Leh via Stok and Stakna
Quite easily, the stunning backdrop and the shimmering expanse of turquoise waters can keep one enthralled for hours. So after you have had your fill of Pangong Tso, head back to Leh via the quiet riverside monastery of Stakna. The scenery takes your breath away as it resembles a watercolour painted by a divine hand left to dry in the sun. The road stretches like a black ribbon into the horizon while the surrounding mountains look like some exotic dessert for the Gods. Some like heaps of dark marble cake or black forest cake with gigantic scoops of ice-cream and others smooth like chocolate mousse. At Stok village nearby, situated at the foot of Stok Kangri ranges; visit the Stok Palace, former residence of the Royal family of Ladakh. It has a notable display of the family’s heirlooms and relics recalling Ladakh’s illustrious past as a sovereign kingdom. Return to Leh and stay overnight at hotel.
Day 7: Leh to Khardung la Top – 18,390 Ft.
After breakfast, drive 39km to Khardung La (18,390 ft) via the highest motorable road in the world for spectacular views from the Indus Valley to the seemingly endless peaks and ridges of the Zanskar range and the Saeer Massif to the north. The road leads further to Khalsar where it forks, one road leads towards Siachen base camp and the other to the picturesque Nubra valley. Enjoy a packed lunch or return to Leh for some hot thukpa and Ladakhi food before trawling the market place for souvenirs, handicrafts and funky T-shirts. Try and wrangle a visit to a Ladakhi home. There’s nothing like sitting in their warm carpeted kitchens lined with exquisite bonechina cups and bowls. If you’re lucky, they’ll serve you endless cups of gudgud chai (buttered tea) and give you churpi (hard yak cheese), the Ladakhi equivalent of chewing gum. Fly out the next morning.
Do keep an eye out for the following landmarks on your tour:
The highest motorable road in the world
The highest inhabited village in the world
The highest monastery in the world
The highest cultivation in the world
The largest Himalayan monastic complex
The highest market of the world
The highest golf course in the world
Authors: Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy. This article appeared in the August 2012 issue of Rail Bandhu, the Indian Railways magazine.