India, for most people, is a place to avoid in July and August. Treacherous monsoon rains and oppressive heat and humidity are enough reason alone to keep most visitors away. There is however, one place, in this vast country, where July and August see optimal weather conditions (think blue skies, no humidity and twenty-five degree midday highs). Sharing a border with both Tibet and Pakistan, and comprising the eastern portion of the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir in the remote far north of the sub-continent, Ladakh is a region where you could be forgiven for questioning if you are even in India.
Sparsely populated, vast snow-capped mountains, high altitude desert, a seemingly pristine natural environment, and a distinctive Buddhist culture is not the image that people initially conjure up of India. Yet Ladakh is a great example of the diversity that underpins the nation with the most diverse population on Earth. Only in the entire continent of Africa can you find more languages, religious and ethnic groups than in India.
We had come to Ladakh because we wanted to trek. We wanted to explore a part of the mighty Himalayas. We wanted to spend six weeks in pristine mountain air, in the great outdoors, surrounded by some of the most majestic scenery our incredible planet has to offer.
There are two ways into Ladakh. One is by road,via the Leh-Manali (2 days) or Leh-Srinagar (15 hours) highways, both death defying, mind-blowing, terrifying and time consuming options. Or you can fly from New Delhi (2 hours), which is the expensive option. Being the ‘flashpackers’ that we now are, we decided to fly. During our time in Ladakh, both of these roads would be closed at the same time, for over a week each, meaning the only way in-and-out was by air. Internet was also down for almost two weeks, it was liberating to be so disconnected from the outside world and modern life, my only concern being my dearest mother would worry if she hadn’t heard from us for a few days. Cue going to a phone centre, lining up with multiple other young western tourists, all trying to use the one international phone line to leave a message for their mums to let them know they were fine, but cut-off from the outside world. You could be forgiven for feeling like you were back in 1999.
Given my history of altitude difficulties, we allowed ourselves three full days to acclimatise to the 3,500 metre altitude in Leh, the dusty town undergoing something of a tourist boom, that is the capital of Ladakh. This was the view from our hotel balcony.
On day three we ventured out in search of a trekking agent, to find out more about which treks we wanted to do. There is an abundance of these in and around Leh, and we spent an entire afternoon walking in and out of these deciding who we liked and didn’t like, before settling on The Nomadic Way, who particularly impressed us.
Unfortunately, we had to cancel our first trek on day two as I was becoming stricken with altitude sickness once again at around 4,500 metres. We then completed another smaller, less elevated trek (sleeping no higher than 3,500 metres), before heading to the Pakistani border and the K2-range in the Nubra Valley via Jeep. We wanted to trek for much longer, but alas, my body is weak and cannot handle altitude, even with medicine and acclimatisation time, so our time in Ladakh was cut short to three weeks as we changed our plans accordingly.
Without question, during our three weeks here, we found Ladakh to be one of the most naturally beautiful places we have visited in Asia. Leh itself is nothing to write home about, but the outlying scenery, and distinct Ladakhi culture (which is very closely intertwined with Tibetan) found within the region is is like few others.
Ladakh is a place were gushing crystal clear streams morph into fierce brown rampaging rivers, that then wind their way through high altitude hamlets irrigated by lush green fields which when viewed from up high, are often just small green dots amongst a mass of bleak brown Himalayan desert slopes and snow-capped peaks that every so often pierce into the brilliant blue sky that looms above. Life hasn’t changed much in these parts for centuries, some villages now have electricity, many don’t even have roads. It’s a place where women my age (27) are often not parents of small children, but almost teenagers.
It has been a bastion of relative safety and security, and refuge for the tens of thousands who have escaped from dictatorship and genocide over the border in the last six decades. A place where the Dalai Lama’s portrait is everywhere, and political slogans vilifying and denouncing the occupying regime only a couple of hundred kilometres away are in plain sight, but where people are free to say what they think, worship who they want. A place where many care about their environment, recognise it’s importance to their way of life, and take steps to protect it. It’s a place where most people can only work for four months of the year, and then retreat to their homes for the other eight to escape the biting cold of the Himalayas. This is a place where you can walk down the street after three weeks of being there, and find that you are on first-name terms with most of the local Kashmiri shopkeepers, despite not having bought anything from them. This is a place sometimes known as ‘Little Tibet’, but this is not ‘Little Tibet’, this is Ladakh, by no means is it utopia, but it’s certainly one of our favourite places.