Our flight to Ladakh was at 5:30 am. We were sleep deprived and had been on Diamox for two days prior to this, in preparation for the ginormous leap in altitude we were about to subject our bodies to. In truth the tiny tablets did little to appease my fears, which were further augmented by the extreme buffeting the tiny plane took within the valley, prior to landing! Ladakh, at 3500 meters is dominated on all sides by mountain ranges: the Himalayas, Karakoram, and Zanskar. In Ladakh’s higher reaches even the valleys are at an altitude of 4000 to 5000 meters and can sustain almost no vegetation, in addition to nothing else.
Many moons ago Ladakh served as a vital link between central Asia and India, acting as a gateway for trade along the central Asian Silk Route, running from China to Europe. Trade was once Ladakh’s only lifeline, the traders virtually her only contact with the outside world. Recently though she was opened up to tourism, and travellers from all walks of life can be found exploring her awesomeness. Our driver Prakash turned out to be our travel Sherpa as well, guiding us to our destinations with oddball factoids, amusing opinions, and history lessons. We saw evidence of major geological processes in certain parts of the mountains. This transported us back to classrooms long forgotten, to remind us that some of these rocks were sediments from a left-behind ocean. Others are rock from the Indian tectonic plate, whose movements are still causing the Himalayas to grow. These rocks paint Ladakh’s mountainous character in hues of brown, orange and even magenta.
From Leh we travelled to the Khardungla Pass, which at 5,602 meters is the world’s highest motorable pass. We were there for a very conscious 25 minutes, oxygen being a rare commodity at this altitude. From thereon we descended into the Nubra Valley. Sitting at a lower altitude from Leh, Nubra Valley has a moderate climate and it therefore extremely fertile and lush. It also has a population of Bactrian camels, left behind after the trade ended; the animals attract crowds like gravity attracts falling objects. Throughout our travels the Shyok and Indus rivers and their tributaries kept us company. Once or twice we deigned to step into their freezing waters, a refreshing reminder that clean fresh water rivers still exist!
The architecture of Ladakh’s monasteries, or Gompas, fits snuggly into the mountainous terrain, imitating its natural shapes. We visited Lamayuru, believed to be one of the oldest Gompa’s in Ladakh. Thought to have been built in the 10th century it now belongs to the Red Hat Order of Buddhism. Not far from the Lamayuru are unique rock formations, collectively known as Moon Landing. Once within a lake, they resemble a very lunar-esque landscape that stands out oddly against the rest of the terrain. Of the six Gompa’s we visited, including Lamayuru, Alchi, Thikse, Tsemo, Hemis, and Diskit, Hemis was my favorite. Built on the banks of the Indus, in a steep gorge at the base of the Stok mountain range, in 1630, it is downright beautiful and an oasis of peace.
Ladakh’s towering mountains and dramatic sceneries assailed my senses; I spent the entire trip somewhere between disbelief and imagining what an ant might feel like in the human world. Even after returning to a state of relative normality I absolutely cannot find the words to describe Ladakh, so I’m going to stop trying. (I will say this however; they could have shot Lord of the Rings there!) Go see for yourself! Now.
Julley! (The Ladakhi’s are a very efficient people, as demonstrated by their language. Julley has various meanings depending on the context, including hello, welcome, thank you, and sorry!)