Ladakh, the mountain kingdom
A trip to Ladakh, India's cold desert is a once-in-a-lifetime experience. With its spectacular natural beauty, the place is a visual treat for both your eyes and your digital cameras. Read on...
Nestled at an altitude of 3,500 meters above the sea level, between the Kunlun Mountain Range in the north and the main Great Himalayas to the south, is a small, yet bustling town of Leh. Being the largest city of Ladakh, Leh enjoys the maximum tourism. It not links one of the sleepy hamlets and valleys of the district, but is also one of the few remaining Buddhist destinations in South Asia.
Being a cold desert, this arid terrain visitors experience drastic weather changes. The temperatures are so extreme that while one in winter experiences temperatures range between 0 degrees to -28 degrees, in summers one gets to face temperatures like 3 degrees to 30 degrees. Since the temperatures are diverse and the altitude only gets higher, travellers are suggested to have preventive medication for altitude sickness before embarking on their journey.
The Leh Palace, which is situated behind the main market, has eight stories and is similar to the Potala Palace of Lhasa and still belongs to the royal family of Ladakh. Just ahead of the palace is the famous Chamba Temple, which is a oneroomed shrine that has a huge icon of Maitreya, the Buddha to come. Since this temple cannot be found easily, it is essential to enquire about it in the second row of shops.
Also in the bazaar, at the top of the street, one can see the Jama Masjid. This has been painted in green and white colour. Another place that you must visit is the Sankar Gompa, which is situated within the city and is one of the oldest structures here. At one time, this monastery only welcomes maximum twenty monks and is a fairly active one. Also the monks here are extremely hospitable and always offer yak butter tea to those visiting the monastery.
Also a visit to the famous Thikse Monastery is a must. This monastery is the largest such structure in central Ladakh and is primarily known for its magnanimous statue of Maitreya (future Buddha) in its Maitreya Temple. This statue is 15 meters (49 ft) high and the largest such statue in Ladakh. The Buddha here is unusually portrayed as seated in the lotus position rather than his usual representations as standing or in a sitting posture on a high throne.
On Old Leh Road exists the Tibetan Refugee Market which is an ideal place for shopping in Leh. Tibetan markets are popular for their metal-ware. The visitors here who have an eye for artistic pieces would find sonorous bowls made of nine metals like cymbals, decorative brass and copper trumpets. Besides, cymbals that have religious themes that are used in meditation are also found here.
Also if one is fond of jewellery, it is possible to find relevant items like unpolished silver and turquoise jewellery and chunky shell bangles worn by Ladakhi women. There are also a range of excellent rugs and carpets that have traditional Persian and Kashmiri themes. Some other attractions of these markets are the native Thangka paintings, jewellery made of semi-precious stones, small prayer wheels, shawls, stoles and music bowls. One can also find the lapis lazuli from Afghanistan and the rubies from Burma.
Ladakh is the land of high passes and high-altitude lakes with high-altitude Hemis National Park being the habitat of rare animals and birds including Snow Leopard and Chiru. Rafting, short and long, trekking, mountain biking and mountaineering are sports for bravehearts.
The cheapest way to travel within the region is by the state buses, which ply on fixed routes according to fixed time schedules. The most comfortable and convenient though expensive mode of travel, however, is taxi, which is available for hire on fixed point-to-point tariff basis.
For visits to the newly opened areas of Nubra, Dah-Hanu, Tsomoriri, Tsokar and Pangong Lake, Turtuk, Chusul, Hanle etc it is mandatory to engage the services of a registered and recognised travel agency that makes the requisite arrangements including internal transport.
How to reach
The overland approach to Ladakh from Kashmir Valley via Kargil is approximately 434 kms, which remains open for traffic from early June to November. The most dramatic part of this road journey is the ascent up the 11,500 feet 3,505 m high Zoji-La, the pass in the Great Himalayan Wall that serves as the gateway to Ladakh.
There is also a motorable route between Manali and Leh which is 473 kms long. Manali-Leh Road has been serving as the second overland approach to Ladakh. Open for traffic from around mid-June to early October, this high road traverses the upland desert plateau of Rupsho, where altitude ranges from 3,660m to 4,570m. A number of high passes fall enroute among which the highest one known as Taklang-La is the world's second highest motorable pass at an altitude of 17,469 feet/5,235 m. Both the Himachal Pradesh Tourism (HRTC) and J&K State Tourism (SRTC) operate daily deluxe and ordinary bus services between Manali-Leh and Srinagar-Leh. The bus journey between Leh and Manali takes about 19 hours or two days with an overnight halt in camps at Serchu or Pang. And the Srinagar-Leh trip takes 17 hours.
Ladakh is well connected by air with New Delhi, Jammu and Srinagar.