Text and Photos by Tim Hannigan
The smooth strip of road winds away across a vast, empty landscape. In the distance iron-coloured slopes rise to jagged ridges; beyond the village tawny brown hillsides descend towards a narrow gorge, and above everything arcs a huge sky. There is a sharp breeze from the southeast. It snatches at the threadbare prayer flags of the thousand-year-old monastery and sets a copper bell, hanging from the thatched eaves of the main hall, ringing into the surrounding silence. Alpine choughs with glossy black wings twist and tumble in the cold updrafts.
I am 3,390 metres above sea level, looking out from the upper terraces of Lamayuru Gompa, a remote Buddhist monastery in the wilderness of western Ladakh. The monastery, perched on an outcrop of toothy rock, and the little village of whitewashed houses that cling barnacle-like to the slopes below, are adrift in a vast and empty landscape that extends for hundreds of kilometres in all directions. I catch my breath in the thin, clear air after the steep climb from the road, then begin my clockwise circuit of the monastery, spinning the prayer wheels set into the masonry as I go.
Ladakh is many things to many people: an adventure playground for trekkers; a place for cultural tourists to sample the traditions of an age-old community; a richly spiritual land for those intrigued and drawn by the rhythms and complexities of Buddhism; and above all a destination for anyone impressed by dramatic landscapes. Ladakh lies at the most north-westerly tip of India, hard against the Chinese border, and riding on the backs of the more accessible mountain regions of Kashmir and Himachal Pradesh. This is a land apart. Cut off from the monsoon weather systems of the Indian subcontinent by the full might of the Himalayas, little rain or snow falls here. Barren mountains rise above wind-scoured valleys where bone-white monasteries cling to sheer cliffs, and where villages huddle in stands of glacier-fed poplar and willow trees. All of Ladakh, including its main town, Leh, lies more than 3,000 metres above sea level.
This extreme altitude long kept this mountain fastness isolated from the rest of India and the rest of the world. It still does. There are only two roads into Ladakh – one across the stomach-churning Zoji La Pass from Kashmir, and another south to Himachal Pradesh through even wilder country. Winter snows keep both of these roads closed for much of the year.