Ladakh India….After some drama about a missed flight from Delhi, we finally landed in Leh, the capital of Ladakh – a “Little Tibet” in Jammu & Kashmir region, India’s northernmost state. Ladakh is dominated by mountain ranges especially the Himalaya and Karakoram ranges, and its capital, Leh is situated at an altitude of approximately 3,500 metres (11,500 ft). When we came out of the airport, we were greeted by snow-capped mountains and cool crisp air.
We were whisked off to our guesthouse located just ten minutes away from the airport. As soon as we arrived, we were greeted by our hosts, offering a Tibetan white scarf, masala chai and ginger biscuits. Although I was enjoying my tea, I was exhausted and looked forward to catch up on some sleep. We had woke up as early as 2.30am to catch the 5:45am flight from Delhi to Leh.
The guesthouse was pretty and pleasant, and my room had a private balcony at the back which had expanse views of the mountains. It was quiet and I could hear birds chirping – what more could I ask for – especially after a few days of blistering summer heat and traffic noise in Delhi.
We didn’t do much for several hours except rest and relax at the guesthouse. Because we flew directly to Leh, we had been advised not to travel anywhere during the first day, in order to acclimatize to the high altitude. At the airport, we were given a leaflet which provided tips to acclimatize, by resting completely, preferably thirty-six hours after arrival, moving slowly and breathing deeply so that the body could adjust to the lower oxygen levels.
However, by 4pm, we were restless and decided to go out to see a little bit of Leh. We went to the ruins of the ancient Leh Palace, a former mansion of the Ladakh royal family in the 17th century. The rooftop provided a panoramic view of the medieval quarter of Leh and the surrounding areas. We also spent time in Leh market where there were numerous shops selling general provisions, Tibetan art & craft, pashmina shawls, hiking paraphernalia and even German apple strudels.
By sunset, we were at Shanti Stupa, a Buddhist white-domed stupa on a hilltop, built in 1985 by the Japanese to promote world peace and to commemorate 2,500 years of Buddhism. After spending about half an hour at Shanti Stupa, I began to have a migraine. I wasn’t sure if it was the chilly wind in the evening as temperatures dipped, or the onset of altitude sickness (later we learned it was the latter). My friend was feeling tired also and by dinner time, we were grumpy and felt like crap. We probably should have stayed in the hotel instead of traipsing around in town. As much as I was hungry at dinner, I didn’t eat much and all I wanted to do was crawl into bed and to sleep off the migraine.
Ladakh was formerly a kingdom of western Tibet, hence geographically and culturally, it has more in common with Tibet than India. Until the mid-1970s, it was an area prohibited to both foreign and Indian visitors. Situated between central Asia and India, Ladakh was formerly a gateway for trade and became an important link from India to the Central Asia Silk Route running from China to Europe. As such, its lifeline was trade and those trade routes were the only contact this ‘Little Tibet’ had with the outside world. Ladakh became almost remote when borders were closed and the very nature of its mountainous terrain helped to protect its culture and natural environment in a way not possible elsewhere.
The best time to visit is between June and October. Ladakh is completely cut off during winter where temperatures can drop to as low as minus twenty or thirty degrees Celsius. Travelers are now given the option to fly to Leh which unfortunately deprives you the slow acclimatization process that road travellers enjoy (that explained our headaches and the blues on our first day). The Indian military opened up the old trade route to civilian vehicles travelling via Manali in Himachal Pradesh and until recently, the Srinagar to Leh highway was also made suitable for vehicles. Both road journeys take two days and the routes are usually open during the summer until October, dependent on the weather.
However, our adventure was just starting…….and continues tomorrow….