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.
Although the Indian government first allowed foreign travellers into Ladakh in the 1970s, those rough, tough roads long kept it the preserve of hardy backpackers prepared to endure the bone-shaking two-day bus ride from Manali during the brief summer season. But reaching Ladakh is much easier than it once was. The short flight from Delhi to Leh is one of the most spectacular on earth.
I have chosen to enter Ladakh the dramatic, old-fashioned way – by road from Kashmir – and my first stop is the tiny village of Lamayuru. The monastery here is the oldest in Ladakh. Buddhism first spread north from India across the mountains towards China some time in the first millennium. It put down strong roots in the chilly world of the Tibetan plateau – of which Ladakh is a part – mixing with the indigenous Bon religion of these uplands to create the unique character of Tibetan Buddhism, with its lamas, prayer wheels and gompas, and its wild whorl of demons and protector deities.
From Lamayuru I journey on eastwards into the Ladakhi heartland. Although the region is part of India today, it was not always that way. For many centuries Ladakh was ruled from Tibet; later it was an independent kingdom. It was only in 1834 that it was annexed by the Hindu ruler of Jammu, bringing it into the Indian sphere of influence for the first time. But the culture of Ladakh remains more closely tied to Lhasa than to Srinagar or Delhi. The religion, the language and the landscape here is Tibetan, and for many visitors to Ladakh that is its biggest attraction.
After a stopover in the little village of Alchi, with its poplar-lined irrigation channels, ancient monastery and rows of bright brass prayer wheels, I continue east along the banks of the Indus. This river is the backbone of Ladakh, entering the region from across the Chinese border and continuing west to the Pakistani frontier. Following the Indus I arrive in Leh, the capital of Ladakh and a place that mixes creature comforts with age-old colour, where there is fine food, top-notch accommodation and air links to the outside world, but where more than a whiff of the romance of the Silk Route and the days of camel caravans still lingers.
Leh was always a crossroads. It grew up as a junction on the trading routes between Kashmir, Tibet, India and Central Asia. A century ago long trains of loaded mules, yaks and twin-humped Bactrian camels regularly struggled into town under loads of Chinese silk, Indian tea and Tibetan shawl wool. Leh is the first stop for those who come looking for spiritual solace in Ladakh. There are yoga and meditation courses, Buddhist retreats and Ayurvedic treatment centres amongst the poplars and willows.
I am looking for my own soul food out in the wilderness beyond the town. Across the Indus Valley the long white line of the Stok Kangri Mountains rises; north across the Khardung Pass is the upland desert of the Nubra Valley. But I am heading for somewhere even more remote – on the far side of a dizzying pass, running right across the Tibetan border, is the long turquoise lozenge of Pangong Lake. I set out from Leh, stopping at more ancient monasteries to see monks performing morning puja ceremonies with conch shell horns and clanging gongs, and then I cross the 5,289-metre Chang La Pass.
This is the third-highest motorable pass in the world. I am travelling in comfort in a hired jeep with some fellow travellers from Mumbai, but the air is so thin at the top that we are all left feeling faint. On the other side it’s a long descent through a stark, fractured landscape of tumbled boulders, sharp ridges and steep scree slopes. Wild horses watch us from the roadside; plump marmots peer from their burrows or lounge on smooth rocks in the thin sunlight. And then the lake appears, and we all draw a breath. The colour is intense in the sharp light, turquoise in the shallows, deepening to a rich lapis lazuli blue further out. A breeze is blowing and flocks of delicate white water birds crowd the shores.
I leave my companions huddling over tea and soup at a simple lakeside café and scramble up the mountainside. The lake, a narrow strip of salty water, runs 130 kilometres away to the east, crossing an international frontier. The conspiratorial cluster of white mountains I can see rising in the far distance lie deep inside Chinese Tibet. It is a staggeringly beautiful place, and a suitable culmination for my journey through the stark wilderness of Ladakh. I button my jacket against the wind, close my eyes and listen to the sound of silence.
Text and Photos by Tim Hannigan