Tag Archives: Ladakh

Ladakh, India – 3 weeks on the roof of the sub-continent

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.

dan plummer amelia chin ladakh india feet hotel view

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.


Getting the rules bent on the Leh-Srinagar Highway

Six hours on the road, thinking we are almost half way to Srinagar and our driver gets the call we hoped he wouldn’t. He gets off the phone, “Sorry, road to Srinagar closed. You must stay in Kargil until further notice”. How we hoped he’d been given the wrong information. Sadly he hadn’t. We told the driver to try and go through anyway. Until we got to a roadblock and were sent back into town, to widespread dismay and grunts of disdain. (The road had only just reopened, having been closed for the past week).  Driving back into town, we formulated a cunning plan.

“There’s nothing to do here right, and we will do almost anything to not have to stay here?”,


“So, lets go and ask to speak to the Police and explain we have a flight to New Delhi tomorrow, politely beg for some empathy, smile a lot, apologise profusely for the inconvenience and say how great India, Ladakh and Kashmir are (which is kind of true, anyway) and hope he’s persuaded enough to let us go through. We do not want to spent the night here.”

To many, it may sound futile. But given the lack of activities here to keep us busy, we figured we may as well try.

Twenty or so minutes later, we found ourselves at the Kargil Police Headquarters. A large, unnattractive bulding, in need of a lick of paint and to be quite frank, demolition. Outside were high walls, a no-parking zone and armed Policeman patrolling the perimeter of the building and gate.

We decided that amongst our shared taxi of five, consisting of Amelia and I, a rather amusing 20 year old Australian who enjoyed regaling us with many stories of how he once dated the daughter of a former Miss Japan with grand plans to eventually become a hotshot lawyer (my stories of once being known as “Dan the Gym Man” can’t compete with that), a 19 year old British gap-year lad looking forward to his upcoming freshers week at university, and a mid-thirty something Israeli lady who appeared to be undergoing some kind of early mid-life crisis on some journey of self-discovery whilst coming across as being neurotic with bipolar tendencies, it was decided that given I was white, NOT a child and male, that I should be the one to try and plead our case. We decided that Amelia should come along too, to flash her eyes and smile when needed and because nobody likes saying no to a white guy, especially in front of his lady. Bizarre logic it may seem, but this was a workable plan.

So out of the car we got, and over to the front gate we went. We were welcomed in and told the Chief was out at the moment, but would be back soon. I then spent the next hour chatting to a Kashmiri Policeman called Ahmed, rifle resting on lap, barrel staring down at my leg centimetres away, talking cricket, football, women and India-Pakistan relations, waiting to plead with the chief of Police to let us through on the supposedly closed road to Srinagar. Once he had enough of talking to me, we were moved into a small, dark room next to the entrance, which wreaked of paint and toxic fumes. Oh how I would hate to ever have to go to an Indian jail. We then chatted to another Indian family from Calcutta for the next half hour who were in the same boat as us, and talked football some more.

Mid-conversation, there was a lot of movement and fuss outside by the gate, the chief had returned. This is what we had been waiting for. We were ushered out of the small dingy room, and very briefly introduced to the chief.  A generous portly middle-aged man, that you wouldn’t want to argue with, he granted us our request without us even asking and told us to be on our way.

“Just drive slowly”, he said.

“Yes certainly Sir, thank you ever so much”, we replied, and then repeated to the next five policemen we walked past, jubilant that we didn’t have to spend the night in Kargil.

Our plan had worked. We were going to Kashmir.

During the proceeding hours we would bear witness to and enjoy, one of the greatest road journeys of this earth. We bumped our way slowly across some of the most glorious natural scenery we have seen on our travels, taking in 4,000 metre mountain passes, Hindu Festivals in the valleys and Himalayan glaciers.

Ladies and Gentlemen, I present to you, the Leh-Srinagar Highway.