Ladakh: India's Alternative to Tibet
Ladakh, which means ‘The Land of High Passes’, is a mountainous region in northern India. It is in the state of Jammu and Kashmir, which in turn is often referred to as ‘Heaven on Earth’. With its unique topography and very strong Buddhist culture, influence and historical connections to Tibet, it’s also known as ‘Little Tibet’.
Leh is the main city in Ladakh, and is often compared to Lhasa in Tibet - one of the places in the world that many older travellers have on their bucket list. However many travellers are fearful to go to Lhasa there because of the altitude sickness that people living at sea level often suffer.
At best that can mean their trip is spoiled because they have headaches and vomiting during their time in Lhasa, or at worst they have to be evacuated or hospitalised because they come down with full blown altitude sickness. Some people are not badly affected by altitude sickness and can fly in and take Diamox tablets and get by. But for many others altitude sickness can be debilitating.
For those people, the way to overcome altitude sickness is to travel overland and stop at places that are a little higher every few days so that the body acclimatises to the altitude gradually. That's a strategy that many travellers use in different parts of the world when travelling to high mountain regions. But in Tibet it is not possible because of restrictions that the Chinese authorities place on overland travel.
There is a train that goes to Lhasa but it still takes only a day and a night, and that is not enough time to acclimatise. However, Leh in India offers almost everything that Lhasa in Tibet does - similar altitude, similar beautiful high mountain desert scenery, similar big fort overlooking the city, similar culture - but less restrictions on overland access.
By taking an overland route to Leh via Srinagar or Manali, it is possible for travellers to stop at intermediate altitudes for a few days to help the acclimatisation process. For example, on the route from Srinagar (1,500m) to Leh (3,500m) it would be possible to stop at Sonamarg (2,500m) which is at an intermediate altitude and rest there until the traveller feels acclimatised.
The relative ease with which Ladakh can be reached is what really distinguishes Ladakh from Tibet, but in all other respects visiting Ladakh is a very similar experience to visiting Tibet. For those who may have previously travelled to high altitudes without experiencing altitude sickness, Leh is much easier to reach than Lhasa because it’s just a 50 minutes domestic flight from New Delhi.
For those who opt for the road journey, they will be experiencing a route that is very very beautiful amongst high mountains and stark barren scenery. The actual driving time is only 12 hours from Srinagar and 16 hours from Manali, so can be comfortably achieved in two days. But taking longer, and stopping off to rest on the way, is the best way to ensure that one’s time in Ladakh is not spoiled by altitude sickness.
The trip to Ladakh can be combined either with a tour of the Kashmir Valley, which is a mountainous and forested area with an alpine feel, or through the towns of Kullu and Manali (with a side-trip to Kasol) or the Spiti valley, which are equally beautiful and pristine areas of Northern India with their fair share of alpine flora and fauna, quaint and peaceful villages, glaciated valleys, streams, meadows, ancient temples and monasteries.
The road from Manali to Leh is approximately 500 km long with three high altitude passes after Rohtang La (3980m), namely the Baralacha Pass (4890m), Lachung La (5060m) and Tanglang La (5330m).
The road from Srinagar to Leh is approximately the same distance passing through Zoji La (3530m), Namika La (3700m) and Fotu La (4110m). The highest motorable passes in India, Khardung La (5360m), Chang La (5360m) and Marsimik La (5582m) are situated in Ladakh.
Leh is the base for all activities in Ladakh. It’s a stunningly beautiful city surrounded on all sides by high mountains, prominent among them being Stok Kangri which is in excess of 6000 metres, with the Indus river flowing some distance away.
For those who decide to fly into Leh, the last 20 minutes of the flight is an adventure in itself offering unparallel views of the mountains, snow and the valleys and the city of Leh itself. Even for those who do not normally sufffer from altitude sickness, it is worth setting aside a day to acclimatise on arrival so that body tunes itself to the altitude.
There is a saying in Ladakh: “Don’t be Gama in the land of Lama”. Gamma was a famous wrestler/strong man, and lamas are the Buddhist monks in this area of India, so it means don’t try to act tough in the land of the monks.
Ladakh is one of those places that is often called the ‘the roof of the world’, and is known for its climatic extremities. In the winter months it’s a place which can give you sunburn and frost bite at the same time.
In the past, Leh was an important stop on one of the branches of the Silk Road. Silk yarn, cashmere wool, brocade, resins, salt and semi-precious stones were traded. It fell on the crossroads of old routes from Kashmir, Tibet and China, and was an important stopover for Tibetan nomads and traders.
Interestingly, the main tourist spots of Ladakh are very reachable by taxi inspite of the very difficult terrain. Tourism in Ladakh got a major boost with the release of a Bollywood movie called ‘3 Idiots’ around a decade ago, and this has resulted in tourism infrastructure improving a great deal with modern hotels, internet and mobile services, cafes and restaurants, and many shopping opportunities. So despite its remoteness, Ladakh is well connected with the outside world.
Some of the world’s highest lakes namely the Pangong and Tso Moriri are easily reachable from Leh either as one day or two day trips. The pristine trekking areas of the Markha valley are also short distance away from Leh.
For the religiously and culturally inclined Ladakh abounds in Buddhist monasteries, gompas and festivals (mainly in summer). Some of the more famous ones near Leh are in Spituk, Thiksey, Chemrey, Stakna and Hemis. There is a world famous dance festival in Hemis during the summer months which is very popular with visitors. It showcases Buddhist culture, dances and traditions which are centuries old.
Into the Zanskar regions and across the Senge La (Lion Pass) is one of main trekking areas. In fact the whole of Ladakh is a trekkers’ paradise with sprawling wilderness and one of the few places where you can still be one with nature and the elements. Away from the city there are home stays in quaint villages amidst high mountains and along the glacial rivers.
The Nubra valley is another area much explored by the visitors across the Khardung Pass towards Turtuk (which borders with Pakistan). This area boasts of numerous monasteries, trees of apricots and other fruits, and the double-humped bactrian camel which used to ply on the silk routes in ancient times, but now only gives joy rides to tourists.
This route is also popular with people testing their driving skills. There is a metalled road right until the last village on the Indian side. The village of Turtuk there is part of the Baltistan and Karakoram range of mountains.
The main tourist season in this region is from April to mid-October which are the summer months and also the harvesting season. The festivals celebrate life and coming of summer to bring prosperity and peace to the people. The Dalai Lama celebrates his birthday in Leh during summer and is widely respected and followed all across Ladakh.
The winters in Ladakh are very harsh and yet there is a very special adventure taking place which is called the ‘Chadar Trek’. It involves walking on the frozen Zanskar River for around 100 kilometres one way. In olden times this is how villagers travelled to Leh in winters with the passes being closed due to heavy snow.
Even now one can see villagers going to Leh along this route with children in tow. A truly amazing sight in the 21st century.
Sharing borders with Pakistan and China means there is substantial Army presence in Jammu and Kashmir and they support visitors in all possible ways including medical facilities and free tea, and sometimes snacks at high passes. Anybody in difficulty is also taken care of by the Army.
There is total peace and tranquillity in Ladakh and it is a unique place to which to travel. Ladakhis are generally very calm and peaceful people and there is virtually no crime. These Buddhist people lead a very simple and spiritual life. One gets to see very smiley faces all around. Generally life goes on at a leisurely pace. It really is a perfect destination to either unwind or get adventurous.
A Persian poet had this to say about Jammu and Kashmir:
“Agar firdaus bar roo-e zameen ast,
Hameen ast-o hameen ast-o hameen ast.
If there is a paradise on earth,
It is this, it is this, it is this.”
Header image: Desh Khanna