By Tina Aranha, Ph.D
By Tina Aranha, Ph.D
At the first glance, Ladakh seems like an excellent response to John Muir’s call - ‘The Mountains are calling, and I must go!’
Replete with mountains, skies and rivers of all hues and shades; the beauty in Ladakh overwhelms you. Nature is at its best form and while popularized in various movies, the true appeal of Ladakh lies in its sublime charm. Full of allure and natural splendor, Ladakh is a truly a traveler’s delight.
With the spread of Buddhism in the region, Leh-Ladakh is replete with beautiful monasteries boasting of rich culture and heritage and watching the colourful prayer flags sway with the winds as you navigate the terrain truly soothes your soul.
While absolutely beautiful, be fairly warned that acclimatization to the region is difficult and you must not exert too much upon arrival in Leh. Oxygen levels are low and too much physical activity initially can decrease your capacity to adapt to the terrain. Our itinerary, designed by my mentor who has travelled extensively in Ladakh and hence taking the geography into account, meant we did the following: Mumbai -> Leh -> Nubra Valley -> Pangong -> Leh -> Mumbai.
Since the terrain is difficult and, in most places, landslides destroy the roads in the mountains; having an experienced driver is both a prerequisite and a blessing. Our Ladakhi driver Norbu was excellent with the roads, knew quite a bit about Ladakhi history and wildlife as well as was a brilliant cook who shared his special chicken curry which warmed our hearts and our tongues on a very cold night in Pangong Lake.
Starting out in Leh, we began by visiting Shey Palace.
Constructed in the 16th century, the Shey Palace was the residence of the royal family till they moved to Stok Palace in 1834. The five storied palace is built in traditional Ladakhi style with mud bricks, Poplar wood and willow. It also houses the Shey Monastery which holds a tall copper statue of seated Shakyamuni Buddha plated with gold and precious stones. The statue was built as a memorial to King Sengge Namgyal. It also has the largest Changchub Chhorten (Stupa of Enlightenment) in Ladakh.
Leh Palace, developed on the lines of the Potala Palace in Lhasa, Tibet was built by King Sengge Namgyal in the 17th century. It is nine stories high with over 100 rooms and designed in typical Tibetan architectural style. Also known as Lhachen Palkhar, the palace is now in ruins. Made of stones, mud and wood, its engraved doorways, corridors and large rooms give a glimpse of its former royal glory. Various levels of the palace were used for different royal activities. Old pictures and paintings made of natural colours are displayed in the exhibition halls. The palace has large courtyards that provide outstanding scenic view of Leh and it fell into disrepair after the royal family moved to Stok Palace in 1834.
Mangue Monastery, built in the 12th century, has valuable and beautiful wall paintings. It has 2 main temples with small doorways. In one temple stands a massive Maitreya Buddha statue with four arms and the walls are covered with paintings of small Buddhas. The second temple has a two-armed Maitreya Buddha with striking colours, though fading. The walls are full of rare paintings and mandalas.
Rizong Monastery was founded in 1833 and is located at 3450 mts. It boasts of a lush set of holy texts, writings and biographies. Situated on a hilltop, it is believed that Padmasambhava meditated in the caves nearby and Lama Nima established this monastery to meditate and dwell on Buddha’s teachings. The first temple holds his relics. The monastery holds a statue of Shakyamuni Buddha as well as holy books and sacred chambers for prayers. Nearby is a nunnery with around 20 nuns, who also participate in the daily activities of the monastery. The monastery is considered as a model of monastic life.
Another popular spot is the Magnetic Hill which claims to have anti-gravitational effect and vehicles when placed in neutral gear on a white marked spot seem to move uphill on their own. On the way to Magnetic Hill is Pathar Sahib Gurudwara where Guru Nanak meditated and killed a demon.
The nourishing rivers of Ladakh are watchable at Sangam Valley, which is the confluence of the rivers Indus and Zanskar. The colours of the two rivers are seen distinctly and the striking mountains provide an attractive backdrop.
Another latest tourist development is the Sindhu Ghat. Constructed as a space to witness the glory and magnificence of the River Sindhu (also called Indus River – from which comes the name India), it is 8 kms from Leh city and you can combine it with visiting Shey monastery. You can walk along the banks of the river or sit quietly to take in the sunrise/sunset. The spectacular skies combined with the ferocious river adds to the charm. Sindhu Darshan Festival (3 days) is also hosted every year in June.
Thiksey Monastery is a 12 storied monastery located at over 11,000 ft. It hosts the temple to honor the Dalai Lama’s visit and contains 49 feet high statue of Maitreya Buddha in the main prayer hall. It also has a large engraved pillar with Buddhist teachings. The interiors are decorated with colorful paintings, offerings, statues and religious artefacts.
A highlight of Ladakh is the Shanti Stupa – a white dome Stupa built facing the Leh palace on a steep hilltop at 11,840 feet. Inaugurated by his Holiness Dalai Lama in 1991, the stupa is reachable through 585 steep stairs. Built as a 2-level structure, it provides picturesque view of the entire city of Leh.
Hall of Fame is a museum constructed by the Indian Army as a reminder of the Army’s achievements and sacrifices in the region. Well designed and creatively displayed, it contains OP Vijay Kargil section which depicts the exploits of the Kargil war, alongwith arms and ammunition captured during the war while a documentary plays in the background. It showcases letters from soldiers as well as personal artefacts captured in war. It also showcases gear and features used by soldiers in Siachen posts, living conditions and training process of troops in Siachen. It also documents soldiers who died and won gallantry awards in war in the Lest We Forget section. The museum also displays history, culture and facts about Ladakh. The Army also holds Sound and Light Show in the evenings to showcase history of Ladakh.
Zorawar Fort is a museum dedicated to General Zorawar Singh, known to be a military genius and excellent strategist in mountain warfare. Renovated in 2016 and managed by the Army, the entrance holds a mud statue of the General and the museum documents the exploits of the General, battles fought, his success, along with rare coins, commemorative stamps, swords, etc. It also has a Light and Sound show in the evening.
In the evening, we explored Leh city and walked to the market square. A part of the street is cordoned off and makes for a wistful walk through the various shops. Nestled in one of the bylanes of this busy market street is the Central Asian Museum.Located in the complex of the Masjid Sharif, the Oldest Mosque in Leh; the museum is built in local Ladakhi style with interesting collection of artifacts, depiction of daily instruments, picture gallery, a library and details of Ladakh’s trade culture. The exit of the museum is a bridge that gives a panoramic view of the city, while leading down to an open-air restaurant for traditional Ladakhi kitchen & food experience.
Travelling to Nubra means you cross Khardung La, the world’s highest motorable road at around 18,380 feet. The pass feels surreal with snow clad landscape and the wind that hits you hard. The steep and rugged terrain, winding roads, furious winds ensure it is a challenge to stand still at the Pass especially since oxygen levels are also low here.
Snuggled between the Karakoram range and nourished by 2 rivers – Shyok & Siachen, Nubra Valley is a delight. Nubra is a crucial point in India’s connection to China with the last village being Panamik on the Indian border.
Nubra Valley offers various options for stay – homestays, hotels and tents. We chose to stay in tents in Hunder village and the joy of walking out of your tent in the morning to face majestic mountains is beyond words. Hunder village holds the famed White Sand Dunes with double humped camels, a rare species found only in this region of Ladakh. The sand dunes are set against a stunning landscape of snow-clad mountains and gentle stream. While one can ride the camels, do quad bike rides or try your hand at archery, the real joy is truly to walk across the cold desert and marvel at nature’s gifts and majesty.
Diskit Monastery belongs to the Thiksey Monastery line and has the statue of the Crowned Buddha in the prayer hall. It also runs a school for local children. It is a must-see in Nubra Valley. Thanks to our in-depth conversations with Mr. Jamshed, a 74-year-old local, who was a lesson in courtesy and goodwill. With a broken foot but vigour of a young man, he showed us the local Jama Masjid in Nubra, discussed the changes in Ladakh, rising impact of tourism and pointed out lesser known travel spots in and around Nubra.
We travelled to Turtuk, the village which became a part of India after the 1971 war with Pakistan. We had a long walk into the quaint bylanes of this village with stone-walled houses, naturally insulated wooden homes and gurgling streams in our search for Balti Heritage Museum in Turtuk. Part of Baltistan, this used to be the palace of the Yabgo dynasty and fell into disuse after the village became a part of India. It was converted into a museum by Yabgo Mohammad Khan Kacho who claims to be a descendant of the Yabgo dynasty. The museum depicts the family tree and relics like headgear, vessels, ornaments, swords and the letter from the Pakistani Army handing over the palace to him. Khan stays in and manages the museum himself and tourists can drop in any amount they deem suitable which he uses for its upkeep and maintenance.
Conversing with him and other villagers was interesting specially to know how they felt to be in Pakistan after Partition and back in India after the 1971 war even as they continued to be part of the same village. The humdrum of the village, warm smiles of the villagers including young children and skill of craftsman like blacksmiths making traditional wares was soothing. We also travelled to Thang, the last village on the LOC and were only able to see the old bridge built when it was part of Pakistan as well as the border with Pakistan from afar. While this is not an active border, it is patrolled and monitored.
Pangong, at an altitude of 4350mts and a five-hour drive from Leh, is a lake that leaves visitors enchanted and in awe of the sparkling colours. Considered sacred, this 130 kms lake is a divine sight to tired city eyes. 75% of the lake lies in China. Flanked by brown hills, walking along the lake lends for postcard images. The lake changes shades of colour through the day with the sun’s reflection to green, turquoise, light blue and dark blue. At night the sky is lit with million stars and you can easily see the constellations. While earlier it had several guesthouses and tents close to the lake, the administration has now demolished many as they are disturbing the ecological balance and hurting the environment. While the tents seem appealing; it is better to choose guesthouses which are constructed in local Ladakhi style with mud walls as they are extremely cozy and keen you warm.
We returned to Leh via Chang La, the second highest pass in the world at 17,688 ft. We filled our hungry stomachs with the delicious local food – momos, thupkas and soups. If you are in Ladakh for over 10 years you could also cover Tsomoriri Lake, Tso Kar Lake (to see the Black necked crane), Stok Palace Museum, Alchi Monastery, Lamayuru Monastery, Zanskar Valley, Chushul War Memorial, Shaitan Singh Memorial, Petroglyphs Park at Domkhar and various festivals hosted at Ladakh throughout the year.
Breathe, soak in and observe – Ladakh offers endless opportunities to align with nature and unwind. If you are looking for vigorous and typical touristy activities, avoid going to Ladakh.