As best I can tell, Chamba Camp Thiksey is the highest five-star accommodation anywhere in the world. It’s certainly the only property where I’m welcomed with a drink, a freshen-up towel and a doctor asking to measure the oxygen in my blood. The camp is a 28-acre meadow filled with wildflowers and 13 super-luxury tents. It sits at 3,600m, easily getting the drop on the five-star Kulm Hotel in the Swiss Alps at 3,150m, but this brazen altitude comes with a cost: swapping the plains of Delhi for the Indian Himalayas on the Tibetan border instantly shortchanges your body of 30 per cent oxygen.
“We recommend all our guests spend their first day acclimatising,” explains lovely host Aditi. She considers my O₂ numbers. “You must relax today in your tent, do nothing.”
I can do that. My canvas mahal conceals a brilliant arrangement of fine fabrics, timber floors and doughty leather-strapped furnishings. The sleeping area accommodates a four-poster bed and writing desk, while the bathroom (complete with polished copper sink) is large enough to swing a yak. It’s Raj chic, fit for a Sahib travelling the Silk Route; I even have a personal valet to bring me coffee and beer; and the restaurant tent – which is more a marquee – is open whenever I care to use it.
Dutifully pillow-propped, I stare out at the 16th century Thiksey monastery, an edifice of coloured buildings built over a small peak. This, in turn, is backed by mountains, a coronet of parched peaks that look like they simply got too high and drained themselves of life. They’re beautiful and deathly and their pale rocky flanks come right down to my tent in its sweet little meadow. Perhaps it’s the oxygen deficit and the 15 hours flying time from Australia, but this place feels like nowhere else. A little bit India. A little bit Tibet. A lot alien.
At 6:30am, robed monks in yellow-fringed hats surmount their monastic pinnacle and blow long, low notes through conch shells – time for me to visit the restaurant tent for baskets of fresh pastries, fruits and platters of bacon and eggs.
Guests are also indulged with a personal guide and driver. Young guide Gyaltsen perfectly embodies the Ladakhi people – rather Tibetan in appearance, eternally patient and deferential to the mountains he grew up in. I have an itinerary of adventures that grow increasingly exotic and unremittingly higher but the mountains can undo plans in a flash. “They say there are two things you can never predict in India,” he smiles, “the fashions in Mumbai and the weather in Ladakh.”
Today the snow lines on the 6,000m peaks are bathed in sunshine, so we start with a gentle walking tour of Thiksey village. Typical of the region, it’s a green splash of croplands, watered by glacier-melt, and smelling sweetly of woodfires and Jersey cows. We’re invited into a home to sit on rugs beside a tin stove that burns dung. Host Dolma entreats us to local produce – almonds, apricots, salty crackers – and butter tea, a smoky, fatty-flavoured tea good for preserving moisture in a shockingly dry climate. She also shares her treasured centuries-old perak, a traditional wedding headdress shaped like a cobra and weighed down with turquoise and red coral. These gorgeous stones were fossicked from the peaks, relics of a geological time when the planet was an infant and the Himalayas were sea beds.
We go a little higher, into the ancient capital Leh, home to 200,000 people and a nine-storey palace of mud bricks built into the side of a biscuit-coloured mountain. Like most structures, it flutters with great strings of prayer flags. “The flags have mantras on them,” explains Gyaltsen. “The wind is said to spread them far and wide.”
Ladakh is deluged with mantras. Every village in the monumental valleys has a series of mani walls, fat, low whitewashed walls measuring from ten metres to a kilometre long. They’re piled with tens of thousands of river stones engraved with Tibetan glyphs for wisdom, compassion, generosity. I watch old men in heavy grey cloaks circling the walls, turning beads in their fingers, chanting the mantra under their breath.
“Om mani padme hum…”
After two days, I’m oxygenated enough to go on a 22-kilometre rafting adventure on the Indus River. Three hours of paddling the broad glacial waters is hard on my arms and harder still on my neck, which is craned upwards at the wind-sculpted flanks and steep mountain spurs. But to soothe any stresses guests may have incurred, the camp dispatches 10 of its staff to a riverbank within an expansive gorge; the welcoming party lays on beer, wines and a superb three-course lunch including biryani and chicken wraps.
Gyaltsen leads me higher – up into monasteries built like Thiksey, stacked over fin-shaped peaks. These sky palaces are guardians of the Tibetan branch of Buddhism and hold spiritual sway over the villages below. Monks inhabit small colourful courtyards, the dark temples smell of dust and butter.
Alchi is one of the oldest monasteries, home to 11th-century treasures including walls painted with a thousand Buddhas and fearsome ‘protectors’ clearly borrowed from the Hindu pantheon of demons. More ancient shamanic mountain influences have also held fast in these remote parts: in the Matho monastery, we inspect swords knotted by two wild-haired and masked monks who run over the parapets once a year, performing hyper-active rituals before making predictions for the year’s crop.
In one of the most remarkable experiences of the trip, I’m taken to the living room of a suburban house in Leh to watch as a local housewife dons ceremonial robes before allowing herself to be possessed by an oracle. She goes into trance – shivering, yelping and whistling – before growling answers to questions of love and money put by locals needing her guidance. When a beautiful girl from Delhi shares doubts about a young suitor, the oracle savagely admonishes her for being too proud, too headstrong. (Gyaltsan confides he never asks oracles to predict his future: “I remember them from when I was a kid. I was always quite frightened by them.”)
On my final day, I go to 5,300 metres, one of the world’s highest roadway passes where I stand, dizzy and slightly breathless, before vistas so big that I can see a furious progression of weather (cold mists, hot sunshine, flurries of freeze-dried snow). And here also is the indefatigable Chamba Camp crew unloading mountain bikes from a ute so I can experience the thrill of freewheeling down a Himalayan mountain. On my 30-kilometre, 1,500-metre descent I see Marmots darting among the rocks, yaks clinging to far-off slopes and very occasionally a nomad walking to God knows where. The journey is broken once – by the Chamba Camp chefs, this time cooking beside a blazing fire on a lofty precipice, serving drinks, steaming plates of biryani and goblets of fruit compote.
I return each evening to the camp, to be welcomed back into the little tableau of luxe where 60 people bring exquisite hospitality to 24 guests. Among the 28 acres of meadow is a flourishing vegetable garden fringed with sunflowers — chef Simarpal Virdi uses the harvest in his nightly extravaganzas featuring everything from Harrisa-marinated cheese steak to slow-cooked Rajasthani mutton. His marquee of earthly delights is reached by paths lit with 500 hurricane lamps, it’s a fairy dell of light, detail and care.
Yet all around are the forbidding, desiccated peaks whose cold breaths whisper only the grimmest tidings. My head spins at the 3600m Chamba Camp. And it has nothing to do with altitude.
Hot showers in the Himalayas