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LADAKH

LadakhKnown as little Tibet, Ladakh is cradled in a niche north of the great Himalayas - an ideal place for adventure. Its monasteries are treasure-houses of Buddhist art with richly decorated thankas, religious scrolls and wall paintings, gold and copper statues and icons. Ladakh is a land like no other on earth. Bound on two sides by two of the world's mightiest mountain ranges; the Great Himalaya and the Karakoram, it lies athwart two other, the Ladakh range and the Zanskar range. In geological terms, this is a young land, formed only a few million years ago by the buckling and folding of the earth's crust as the Indian sub-continent pushed with immense force against the immovable land mass of Asia. Its basic contours, uplifted by these unimaginable tectonic movements have been modified over the millennia by the opposite process of erosion, sculpted into the form we see today by wind and water.

Today, a high-altitude desert, sheltered from the rain-bearing clouds of the Indian monsoon by the barrier of the Great Himalaya, Ladakh was once covered by an extensive lake system, the vestiges of which still exist on its south-east plateau of Rupshu and Chushul, drainage basins with evocative names like Tso-Moriri, Tso-Kar and the grandest of all, Pangong-Tso lake. Occasionally, some stray monsoon clouds do find their way over the Himalaya and lately this seems to be happening with increasing frequency. However, the main source of water remains the winter snowfall. Drass, Zanskar and the Suru Valley on the Himalaya's northern flank receive heavy snow in winter; this feeds the glaciers whose melting water carried down by streams, irrigates the fields in summer. For the rest of the region, the snow on the peaks is virtually the only source of water. As the crops grow, the villagers pray not for rain, but for sun to melt the glaciers and liberate their waters. Usually their prayers are answered, for the skies are clear and the sun shines in Ladakh for more than 300 days in the year.

Ladakh lies at altitudes ranging from about 9,000 feet (2,750 m) at Kargil to 25,170 feet (7,672m) at Saser Kangri in the Karakoram. The summer temperatures rarely exceed 27 degree Celsius, while in winter they may fall below minus 20 degree Celsius even in Leh. Surprisingly though, the thin air makes the heat of the sun even more intense than at lower altitudes; it is said that only in Ladakh can a man sitting in the sun with his feet in the shade suffer from sunstroke and frostbite at the same time.

For nearly 900 years, from the middle of the 10th century, Ladakh was an independent kingdom, its ruling dynasties descending from the kings of old Tibet. The kingdom attained its greatest geographical extent and glory in the early 17th century under the famous king Singge Namgyal, whose domain extended across Spitii and western Tibet right up to the Mayum-la, beyond the sacred sites of Mount Kailash and Lake Mansarovar.

Gradually, perhaps partly due to the fact that it was politically stable, Ladakh became recognized as the best trade route between the Punjab and central Asia. For centuries, it was traversed by caravans carrying textiles, spices, raw silk, carpets, dyestuffs, narcotics, etc. Heedless of the land’s rugged terrain and apparent remoteness, merchants entrusted their goods to relays of pony transporters who took about two months to carry them from Amritsar to the central Asian towns of Yarkand and Khotan. On this long route, Leh was the midway stop, and hence developed into a bustling port, its bazaars thronged with merchants from countries afar.

The famous ‘Pashmina’ wool (better known as Cashmere) also came down from the high-altitude plateau of eastern Ladakh and western Tibet, through Leh to Srinagar, where skilled artisans transformed it into shawls known the world over for their softness and warmth. Ironically, it was this lucrative trade that finally spelt the doom for this independent kingdom. It attracted the covetous attention of Gulab Singh, the ruler of Jammu in the early 19th century, who sent his general Zorawar Singh to invade Ladakh in 1834 AD. There followed a decade of war and turmoil, which ended with the emergence of the British as the paramount power in north India. Ladakh, together with the neighbouring province of Baltistan, was incorporated into the newly created state of Jammu & Kashmir. Just over a century later, this union was disturbed by the partition of India, as a result of which Baltistan became part of Pakistan, while Ladakh remained in India as part of the State of Jammu & Kashmir.

LEH

Leh PalaceA historic town that served as the royal capital of the old kingdom is dominated by the nine-storey palace built by King Singge Namgyal in the grand tradition of Tibetan architecture, which is said to have inspired the famous Potala in Lhasa built about half a century later. Above the palace, on the Namgyall Tsemo hill are the ruins of a fort, the earliest royal residence built by King Tashi Namgyal in the 16th century. The associated temples remain intact, but they are kept locked except during the morning and evening hours when a monk from Sankar Gompa hikes up the hill to attend to the butter-lamps in front of the images.

Down in the historic bazaar, the main sites to visit are the Jo-khang, a newly built Buddhist temple, and the imposing historic mosque founded in the late 17th century standing, almost opposite. But the pleasures of Leh are not confined to the visiting of monuments and sites. For locals and visitors alike, a stroll along the main bazaar, observing the varied crowd and looking into the curio shops is an engaging experience. A particularly attractive sight is the line of women from nearby villages sitting along the edge of the footpath with baskets of fresh vegetables brought for sale. There are also several attractive sightseeing and walking destinations within a 10-km radius of Leh. Sabu, a charming village with a small gompa, nestles between two minor spurs of the Ladakh range, about 9 kms away from the town. In the same direction, but nearer town is Choglamsar, with the Tibetan refugee settlement including a children’s village, a handicrafts centre devoted largely to carpet weaving and the Dalai Lama's prayer-ground, Jiva-stal. And in the opposite direction, about 8 kms on the Srinagar road, is the turning for Spituk village and its imposing monastery.

Apart from Leh there are several places of interest that one must visit on a Ladakh tour. There are small quaint monasteries perched precariously on cliff tops and there are some that are constructed on a grander scale. Many of these monasteries or gompas are well within a day’s driving distance of Leh such as Lamayuru, Likir, Alchi, Phyang, Spituk, Stok, Shey, Thiksey, Tak-Thok, Stakna, Chemrey, Matho and Hemis among several others.

As an extension one must also visit some of the other scenic valleys in Ladakh such as the Nubra Valley driving over the Khardung-la pass (5,578m) along the highest motorable road in the world. The view from the pass is simply amazing. One can see all the way south over the Indus valley to the seemingly endless peaks and ridges of the Zanskar range, and north to the giants of the Saser massif. In the Nubra valley itself the main village is Deskit which also has an old monastery worth visiting. Further down the road is Hundar, a smaller Ladakhi settlement where one can undertake a desert safari atop Bactrian camels a double-humped shaggy-haired hardy animal found in the area.

Besides Nubra there are several other interesting valleys in Ladakh such as Markha, Shayok, Zanskar etc; some of which can only be reached by foot. An interesting and new area has recently been opened for tourists in Ladakh. This area is inhabited by the Drokpa tribe, Buddhists in name, but racially and culturally distinct from the rest of the Ladakhis. This minuscule community is no more than a couple of thousand strong and their features are pure Indo-Aryan and they appear to have preserved their racial purity down the centuries. Their culture and religious practices are more akin to the pre-Buddhist animist religion known as “Bon-Cho” than to Buddhism as practiced in the rest of Ladakh and greater Tibet.


TREKKING IN LADAKH

LadakhOne of the most remote and mythical regions of India, Ladakh is a landscape of unearthly beauty. Carved through its center by the headwaters of the Indus River, Ladakh sits high in a Himalayan valley between the Ladakh and Zanskar ranges, close to the Chinese border. The wall of the Himalayas blocks precipitation, and the resulting terrain is dry, barren, and poetically austere. Life here has remained virtually unchanged for thousands of years. Ladakh's biggest attraction are its ancient gompas, or Buddhist monasteries, which contain some of Asia's greatest wonders of gold and tapestry work. It is possible to stay overnight in some, making a trek in Ladakh curiously like a sort of pilgrimage. The people of Ladakh, many of whom are Tibetan refugees, are famous for their friendliness and hospitality.

Trekking possibilities include short, day-long walks up and down mountain slopes to visit isolated villages or monastic settlements, or across a ridge to enjoy the sheer beauty of the lunar mountain scape. Or long, trans-mountain treks involving weeks of walking and camping in the wilderness. For example, the trek from Lamayuru in the Indus valley to Darcha in Lahoul across Zanskar takes nearly three weeks. Most of the established routes traverse the Zanskar range which separates the Indus Valley from Zanskar. The Markha valley trek, the Lamayuru-Padum traverse and the Stok-Khangri round trek are the more popular ones among the numerous options available in this convoluted mountain mass. Parts of the Ladakh range between the Indus and Shayok valleys have also become available for trekking. The traditional trekking season extends from early June to mid-October. But localized treks within the Indus Valley can be undertaken even in May. The winter access to the Zanskar Valley is actually along the frozen surface of the Zanskar river. This route, known as Chaddar, calls for elaborate arrangements, but it is perhaps the most exciting trek in the world.


For trekking in Ladakh to be a rewarding experience, it is not enough to be physically fit; the trekkers must also be prepared to face the rigors to back country travel. There are considerable fluctuations in day and night temperatures even during the height of summer. While the days are pretty warm, even hot, due to the desert effect of the barren landscape, evenings can become chilly, requiring additional clothing. It is important to note that visitors to Ladakh should take time to get acclimatized to the high altitude. Altitude sickness here is very common, and the best way to avoid it is to do very little for the first couple of days in the region. Summer is the best time to come, as heavy winter snows make it very difficult even to get to Ladakh.
                                                                     

 
 
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