Ladakh is not for the faint-hearted; not for those wedded to the
creature comforts of the Western world. It is for the bold of spirit,
the strong of lung and limb. It is for those seeking physical
challenge - trekking, cycling, rafting, mountaineering -- in a
wilderness of awesome grandeur; and it is for those seeking spiritual
renewal through a community largely untouched by the wider world; a
people poor in worldly riches, devout in religious faith, secure in
their sense of who they are.
do not mean that Ladakh is Paradise before the Fall. Its people,
descended from tribes who settled there two to three millennia ago,
eke out a bare subsistence living. To the casual interloper it
wouldn't do for the long haul. Yet the notion of a culture pared back
to the basics, unencumbered by Western post-modern neurosis,
exercises a powerful fascination.
saying this I am indebted to Helena Nordberg-Hodge, a Swedish
linguist, who fell in love with the place on her first visit there in
1975. She has returned time and again ever since. To conserve
traditional values, develop intermediate technologies and resist
surrender to Western economic development models, she founded the
Ladakh Project. In her book, Ancient Futures: Learning from Ladakh
(Oxford India Paperbacks, 1991) she writes:
In Ladakh I
have known a society in which there is neither waste nor pollution, a
society in which crime is virtually non-existent, communities are
healthy and strong, and a teenage boy is never embarrassed to be
gentle and affectionate with his mother or grandmother. And as that
society begins to break down under pressures of modernization, the
lessons are of relevance far beyond Ladakh itself.
of Westerners, pilgrims in quest of a spiritual nirvana they cannot
find in the West, mostly young backpackers from northern Europe and
Anglophone countries, converge on Ladakh in the summer months, from
June to late September.
you visit the capital, Leh, in the first fortnight of September, it
offers the bonus of the annual Ladakh arts festival. There is a daily
program of song, dance and music celebrating the Buddhist faith,
imported a thousand years ago, and its own peasant culture,
including hill-tribe polo and archery contests. Ladakh's very
isolation enables it to withstand bland, seductive baubles of Western
Ladakh reflects its religious heritage. The landscape is dotted with
walls of carved prayer stones and chortens, fluttering flags whisper
prayers to the winds and always on some distant height rise the
massive white walls of a monastery.
is a frontier town in a frontier region. Once upon a time it was a
staging post on the famous Silk Road between China and Europe. From
950 AD it was the capital of the Kingdom of Ladakh, until 1834 when
it fell to the Maharaja of Kashmir. With the partition of the
sub-continent in 1947, Leh became a major operational base against
border incursions by Pakistan to the west and China to the east. To
this day it hosts a huge standing army.
with a population of some 30,000, Leh is a fusion of medieval and
modern market town. It has open drains, packs of stray dogs,
livestock stabled in town houses; it has Tibetan refugees and
Kashmiri traders entreating you to buy Himalayan jewellery and
clothing; it is a cacophony of horns and engines as scooters, bikes,
cars, trucks and buses clear paths through pedestrians on narrow,
winding, dusty, unpaved roads.
travel destinations go, thanks to its climatic and topographical
extremes, Ladakh is well off the beaten track; indeed, the sense of
being on the rooftop of the world is central to its charm. Helena
Nordberg-Hodge describes life there as:
...dictated by the seasons -- more so, perhaps than almost any
other inhabited place on earth. Scorched by the sun in summer, the
entire region freezes solid in winter when temperatures drop to as
low as minus 40 degrees. This is the fiercest of climates: winds whip
up tornadoes along the empty corridors of desert; rain is so rare
that is easy to forget its very existence...The vast majority of
Ladakhis are self-supporting farmers, living in small settlements
scattered in the high desert. The size of each village depends upon
the availability of water which comes from melted snow and ice of the
mountains. Generations ago channels were built, tapping the meltwater
from above and bringing it down to the fields.
carries a torch for the Ladakhi people in public lectures all over
the world. She tells her audiences of a way of life under threat from
Western economic and cultural domination. For all that it offers
lessons which the wider world should take to heart.
old culture reflected fundamental human needs while respecting
natural limits. And it worked. It worked for nature, and it worked
for people. The various connecting relationships in the traditional
system were reinforcing, encouraging harmony and stability...I have
no doubt that the bonds and responsibilities of traditional society,
far from being a burden, offered a profound sense of security which
seems to be a prerequisite for inner peace and contentedness...
capital, Leh, stands at an altitude of 3,500 metres above sea level,
with mountain peaks more than twice as high. You should beware of
rushing about trying to do too much when you first arrive,
particularly if you come by air. The state government tourist booklet
warns of High Altitude Pulmonary Oedema and Cerebral Oedema, "very
serious forms of High Altitude Sickness which are life threatening
and require immediate medical attention." Visitors, particularly
those coming by plane, should take a complete rest for the first 24
hours while their bodies adapt to lower levels of oxygen.
tourism focuses on the economy-class backpacker. More than 100 hotels
and guesthouses are listed in Leh, 20 of which are "A-class",
among them is the Omsila Hotel where Roz and I stayed. It is a ten
minute walk from the town centre. The ambience was up market hostel.
Lunch and dinner were a variety of north Indian curry dishes. Guest
rooms boasted en suite bathrooms but with hot water at particular
times of the day only. Bathing oneself involved a handheld
shower-rose or a bucket and pannikin.
restaurants offer north Indian of Chinese food at about Rs. 100/- per
head. For Rs. 900/- you can hire a car and driver/guide for the day.
Of Leh's 30-odd travel agents and tour operators offering porters,
pack-ponies and guides for individual and group trekking, I must
commend in particular Gypsy Tours Treks and Tours because it provides
in addition a fax and phone service to the wider world, a service
conspicuously absent in most of the local hotels.