On a luxury journey through Ladakh, in the shadow of the Himalayas, Lucy Jones discovers a wildly beautiful landscape of soaring mountain passes and crumbling monasteries.
It’s the air that you notice first. Thin and sharp and brittle as glass. Cold, too, despite the fact that we are well into summer. It soon becomes apparent that the rules of weather are a little different up here. At 3,500 metres above sea level, Leh, the capital of the Ladakh region in northern India, is one of the highest cities in the world. You’ll feel it the second you step off the plane. You’ll feel it even more if you try to jog up a set of stairs. All visitors are advised to rest for 24 hours upon arrival in Ladakh – the altitude sickness can be brutal.
We arrive early in the morning on a flight from Delhi. Leh airport requires one of those late approach spirals that dip sharply into the dusty slopes of the Himalayas, making for a picturesque yet abrupt landing. It’s officially a military base, so security is tight. Because of Ladakh’s strategic position, sharing borders with China and Pakistan, there are some 300,000 soldiers based here. That’s in relation to a Ladakhi population of just 250,000. The drive from the airport passes through a huge army base, proudly displaying the insignia of the Fire & Fury Corps, and military trucks are a common sight on the roads through the region.
As we drive, it’s soon clear that Ladakh is something special. It is wildly, madly beautiful in a way that takes your breath away. The landscape looks like Tibet or Nepal; the people too, with their almond eyes, wide cheekbones, bronzed skin and ruddy cheeks. Dramatic mountains rise up on either side of the green valley, their snowy peaks reaching far into the clouds, and monasteries seem to tumble down their sides like blocks from a toy box. Tall poplars (one of the only trees you’ll see) stand to attention and colourful prayer flags flutter in the breeze. I am stunned into silence.
Just outside Leh is Saboo Resorts, a collection of freestanding whitewashed cottages overlooking terraced fields and the peaks of the Zanskar Range. Our host George is there to meet us. He is Abercrombie & Kent’s man on the ground in Ladakh – if he can’t make it happen, it’s probably not worth doing. We also meet our guide, Rinchen, a softly spoken, yet eminently knowledgeable, man who will be with us for the rest of the tour. He proves entirely unflappable, even in the face of blaring truck horns, road closures and unseasonable snow.
As instructed, we rest. The cottages are snug and homey with a traditional, low-slung padded bench in the front room and a bathroom with water so cold it’s hard to believe it’s still a liquid (though it quickly warms up). There’s even cable television and some very intermittent WiFi, a rarity in these parts.
That evening, Lama Paldan, a high-ranking monk from the nearby Spituk Monastery, comes to speak to us. Though India is officially a secular democracy, Buddhism here is a way of life (much as Hinduism or Sikhism is in other parts of the country). Many children spend time in a monastery and Rinchen tells us that he would like his next child to follow the tradition. The Dalai Lama makes frequent visits to Ladakh and will actually be arriving shortly after we leave, meaning many of the monasteries we visit are undergoing some last minute touch-ups.
We spend our days happily walking through the surrounding fields, greeted everywhere with a friendly “jullay!”, a sort of all-purpose word that means hello, goodbye, ok and thank you. At Hemis Monastery, the largest and wealthiest of its kind in Ladakh, preparations are underway for the annual Hemis Festival and young monks are practicing a traditional dance in the courtyard. We climb the steps to Leh Palace, a nine-storey stone edifice that looks over the town. It was built in the 17th century but abandoned 200 years later and now stands largely ruined, though no less imposing.
Leh has the feel of a rugged frontier town, the streets lined with shops selling mountaineering gear for the regular stream of trekkers on their way through to loftier peaks. Stray dogs nap in the sun, their thick winter coats beginning to shed at the start of summer. They are surprisingly well fed but most are disappointingly timid, rejecting my eager advances to pat them. Red-robed monks shuffle along the dusty streets and market stalls overflow with nuts and dried apricots, a specialty of the region. The apricots are rock hard and I nearly lose a tooth – local custom involves soaking them in water first.
The town has undergone a rapid change in the last half century, as indeed has all of Ladakh. When the first airplane landed here in 1948, local women brought it baskets of grass – they thought this strange flying animal would be hungry. In the 1970s, it became part of the Himalayan hippie trail and a handful of guesthouses and homestays sprung up. Now, there are around 12,000 beds in the region, with more on the way. Leh is a cacophony of construction, and there are plans to introduce more flights from within India and possibly international destinations. While people are excited about the potential boost to their economy, there are concerns over the proper management of tourism.
Dramatic mountains rise up on either side of the green valley, their snowy peaks reaching far into the clouds, and monasteries seem to tumble down their sides like blocks from a toy box.
It’s an issue that troubles the King of Ladakh, too. We discuss it over lunch at Stok Palace where he lives with his family (because having lunch with royalty is just the kind of thing you do on an Abercrombie & Kent tour). Ladakh has been at the crossroads of the world for centuries, connecting India and Asia through the Silk Road. It has managed to maintain its unique national identity in the face of both merchants and marauders, but this sudden boom in travellers is unprecedented. The King worries, too, about the effects of climate change on his little pocket of paradise, as glaciers recede and snow falls later and later each season.
It seems snowy enough when we attempt Khardung La, one of the highest driveable roads in the world with a pass of more than 5,600 metres (higher than Everest Base Camp). It travels from Leh over the Karakoram Mountains and into the Nubra Valley. The journey is just over 100 kilometres, yet will take at least five hours – and it’s soon clear why. The road is a muddy, slushy track barely wider than one lane, with an icy mountain face to one side and a lurching drop off to the other. But even that doesn’t guarantee that you won’t come nose-to-nose with an overloaded minibus or huge army truck determined to assert right of way. It’s a bone rattling, heart-in-your-mouth drive. At one point I look out of the window and we are so close to the edge there is no road beside me, just the yawning depths of the valley below.
That’s all forgotten once we (finally) make our way down out of the mountains and into the Nubra Valley. It’s exquisite. The winding road hugs the side of the mountain and it’s like driving along the edge of the Grand Canyon with soaring snow-capped peaks in the background. If this was anywhere else there would be thousands of visitors every day. But here, in one of the most remote and inaccessible parts of the planet, it’s just us.
The tiny town of Diskit is the capital of the valley, a collection of low buildings and dusty streets. The Diskit Monastery, the oldest in the valley, clings to the hillside above. We climb its staggered staircases to a temple where a fierce statue of a guardian deity clutches a skull and mummified forearm, supposedly belonging to a Mongol raider who tried to storm the gates in the 15th century. Opposite the monastery, a striking modern statue of Buddha, 32 metres tall and brightly coloured, coolly surveys the valley.
Our home here is Chamba Camp Diskit, a set of safari-style tents clustered together at the bottom of the valley. The camp is only open from May through September each year, after which it is packed up and moved to the even more remote region of Nagaland, in the far east of India on the border with Myanmar.
On the way back, unwilling to face the thrills of Khardung La a second time, we take the Wari La Pass. It’s as if we’ve stumbled into the Garden of Eden. Rolling green fields, gentle streams and colourful wildflowers line the road. Fat-bottomed Himalayan marmots (a native animal that resembles a cartoonish cross between a corgi and a beaver) scamper among the rocks. The road soon begins to wind up above the snow line, but we see almost no other vehicles on the way and it’s a pleasantly uneventful drive. Its summit is just over 5,300 metres, though that seems barely a blip now that we are high-altitude experts.
Our final days are spent ensconced in luxury just east of Leh at Chamba Camp Thiksey, a collection of grand canvas tents with wooden floorboards and four-poster beds. The food is exceptional (as are the cocktails) and my butler thoughtfully puts a hot-water bottle in my bed one night when temperatures are particularly low. An archery board is set up at the back of the camp, a nod to Ladakh’s traditional sport, though I only get a couple of arrows to stick.
George organises a private polo match, played by wiry Ladakhi men on their small stocky ponies. It’s fast and rough, played on an open dirt field that seems to render the ball all but invisible. Musicians, set up along the sidelines, score each of the points with a dramatic burst of drums and flute. I’m shocked when the players dismount and discover that many of them are well into their sixties, though they look as fit as men half their age.
One morning, we rise at dawn to see the first prayers at Thiksey Monastery. We wait on the roof for two young monks who will come to blow conch shells, signalling the start of the day. Today, one is late and he makes a rather sheepish scramble into his spot well after the appointed time. But it doesn’t seem to matter. The sun still rises and the monks clamber down the stairs with smiles on their faces. It’s hard not to be happy when you live in the most beautiful place on Earth.