Ladakh – the land of high passes

Geographically, Ladakh is a high plateau bounded by Tibet in the east, Lahual & Spiti districts of Himachal Pradesh in the south, the valley of Kashmir to the west and China in the north.  Scant precipitation makes Ladakh a high-altitude desert with sparse vegetation over most of its area.

The largest town in Ladakh is Leh, followed by Kargil. In the past, Ladakh gained importance from its strategic location at the crossroads of important trade routes, but since the Chinese authorities closed the borders with Tibet and Central Asia in the 1960s, international trade has dwindled except for tourism.

Ladakh was opened for tourism in the year 1978 and has steadily gained popularity then onwards. Indian tourist volume grew by 43 % between 2015 and 2017 making it one of the most visited places in India.

Our trip to Ladakh, like so many before us, started from Delhi on a sunny morning in July in 2008. The first stop was Leh, a bustling town at a height of 3500 metres and the capital of Ladakh district. Not only is Leh the origin of all Ladakh trips but it is also ideal place to acclimatize oneself with the height and weather of Ladakh plateau.

Hotel Lotus in Leh – stayed for 5 blissful days enjoying the warm sunshine, clean invigorating air and acclimatizing to the height.
The terrace in the Lotus hotel – you are supposed to toast yourself here during the afternoons and drink wine (beer, if you prefer it) during the evenings.
Everybody in Leh has gardens. Summers are veritable display of colors. And the fresh garden vegetables lend an amazing taste to home-cooked meals.
Main market – Leh. Full of interesting and high priced fake curios.
Ladakhi ladies selling vegetables in Leh main market. Though not seen here, they sell fresh yak milk too 😉

Contrast between green belt and bare hills. The Indus appears as a white ribbon in the middle of the photo.
Cultivation in Ladakh. Barley is the main crop, while wheat, peas, vegetables and mustard are grown in some areas.
Shey Palace. 15 kms from Leh, Shay palace was used as summer retreat by the kings of Ladakh.
The holy fish pond attached to Shey Palace.
Leh Palace. built by King Sengge Namgyal in the 16th century, this former royal palace is modeled on the Potala Palace in Lhasa, Tibet.
Shanti Stupa. This was constructed to commemorate 2500 years of Buddhism and to promote World Peace. His Holiness, the Dalai Lama inaugurated the Shanti Stupa in the year 1985.
In Buddhism, circumambulation or pradakhshina has been an important ritual and devotional practice since the earliest times, and chortens always have a pradakhshina path around them. Here, people circumabulating the series of chortens.
On way to Hemis monastery. The course of the Indus river is demarcated by greenery and trees, rest of the area away from water is barren and rocky.
Hemis monastery. Situated 45 km from Leh, this monastery was re-established in 1672 by the Ladakhi king Sengge Namgyal.
Inner courtyard, Hemis monastery
Every summer, a festival is held in Hemis monastery to honor Guru Rimpoche – a legendary personage credited with many teachings. The purpose of his festival is to evoke strength and health for individuals and the community.
On the day of the festival the austere monastery turns into a riot of colours and sounds.
An interesting part of the Hemis festival are the mystic mask dances called Chams Performance performed by the lamas/monks.
Thiksey monastery. Located 19 kilometres east of Leh, this monastery is noted for its resemblance to the Potala Palace in Lhasa, Tibet and is the largest gompa in central Ladakh.
Thiksey monastery located at an altitude of 3,600 metres, is a twelve-story complex and houses many items of Buddhist art such as stupas, statues, thangkas, wall paintings and swords.
Thiksey monastery assembly hall.
Statue representing Maitreya in Thiksey. H.H. Dalai Lama constructed this Buddha, 15 meters tall, in 1980 to commemorate a visit to Thiksey. The statue is the largest Buddha figure in Ladakh which took four years to construct and is made of clay and covered with gold paint.
Tara shrine inside Thiksey monastery.
After all the romanticism in books, our first meeting with Indus at close quarters was quite unimpressive.
Sindhu Ghat on the banks of river Indus, the place where the Sindhu Darshan festival is held every year in June.
Typical Ladakhi wooden architecture
Butter- smooth roads (courtesy Border Roads Organization, India) and those are not yaks but plain vanilla cows 😉
Khardung La (La is pass in Tibetan) top, 18380 FT on way to Nubra valley, is the highest motorable road. It was bitterly cold and barren except for the huge, welcoming smiles of our army jawans.
Barren beauty – from Khardungla top
Khardungla top. Note the small temple, a typical feature present in all our high mountain passes
Binay proving the point that we indeed crossed Khardung La
First glimpse of Hunder, Nubra valley. Unobstructed view to the horizon and ringed by soaring mountains represents the whole of Nubra valley.
Nubra valley – a geomorphologist’s paradise where the landscape changes on a daily basis right before your eyes
Hunder, Nubra valley
Nubra valley – Hunder. Our luxury (misnormer) swiss tent for a night by the side of an ice – melt creek.
Believe it or not, these are Bactrian two humped camels in Nubra valley. They generally look this unhappy the entire time and lack the sprightly disposition of their Rajasthani cousins 😉
Nubra valley – white sand, green belt along river Shyok and bare hills beyond
Nubra valley – almost like moonscape
Binay contemplating the vastness of the scenery spread out in front of him
Lost amid the dunes and hills
Sand dunes in Hunder
Prayer wheel, a chorten and a communal source of water (hand pump here) – common features across most Ladakhi villages
Mustard field in Hunder
Picturesque wayside
Alchi village – a small hamlet of about 145 houses on the bank of Indus river
Built by Rinchen Zangpo nearly a thousand years back, the Alchi monastery has samples of the artistic and spiritual details of both Buddhist and the Hindu kings of that time in form of wall paintings. These are some of the oldest surviving paintings in Ladakh. The complex also has huge statues of the Buddha and elaborate wood carvings and art-work comparable to the baroque style
The Alchi monastery is a centre of lively activities and is surrounded by tea stalls and souvenir shops
Tibetan jewellery. Turquoise seems to be the predominant medium. A roadside stall in Alchi village
Confluence of Indus and Zanskar rivers
Indus on its way to Pakistan
Likir monastery – established in 1065 by Lama Duwang Chosje has a large repository of old manuscripts, thankas, old religious and domestic costumes and implements.
Statue in Likir monastery – completed in 1999 it is 23-metre high golden statue of Maitreya (the future) Buddha
View of the countryside and cultivated fields from Likir monastery
Ule Ethnic Village. Those fake huts are actually luxury cottages situated inside an orchard full of apple and apricot trees by the side of river Indus
Ule Ethnic Resort. In the background you can see the Indus river and in the foreground the neatly arranged cane furniture for lazing
Apricots are the major commercial crop of Nubra valley. The juicy, fresh fruits are nothing like the dried, brown stuff that is usually available in cities
Chang La (pass) on our way to Pangong Tso. Our driver Sonam in front of our vehicle
Large ice field – view from Chang La
On way to Pangong Tso
On way to Pangong Tso – innumerable ice melt rivulets from the surrounding snow-capped mountains ensure a green cover to the valleys.
First glimpse of Pangong Tso
Dry river valley on way to Pangong Tso. Once a river, this valley is now only sand
Pangong lake (Tso in Ladakhi means lake). This lake is situated at a height of about 13,900 ft. It is 134 km long and extends from India to Tibet. Two thirds of the length of this lake lies in Tibet. The lake is 5 km wide at its broadest point. In winter, the lake surface freezes completely despite being salt water.
At the far side of Pangong Tso is Tibet. About two third of the lake lies in Tibet.
Our guest house by the lake
Pangong Tso – with the angle of the sun, the lake waters change color too. In a day it is not uncommon to witness myriad shades of blue – right from aquamarine to tropical turquoise
Cloud shadow over Pangong lake
Flowering beauty by the side of the lake
Garden of wild flowers by the Pangong lake
Contradictions – ice fields, bare hills without a blade of grass and then flowering trees. And all within one frame of a photo
A chance encounter with a Himalayan Marmot


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