Hidden in the high valleys of India's Kashmir region, Ladakh is one of the most remote lands on Earth. Thanks to snows in the high elevations, this place, formerly an independent Buddhist kingdom, is inaccessible by road for six to eight months of the year.
The culture here is similar to that found in neighboring Tibet. Because it is more easily accessible and more well-known in the West, Tibet sees 250 times more visitors than Ladakh (although Tibet is 10 times larger). However, China exerts pressure on Tibet both culturally and politically, while India basically leaves Ladakh alone. The result is that Ladakh has one of the most traditional cultures in the world. It has been little influenced by the outside world over the centuries. Ladakh is one of those rare places where using the term "frozen in time" is not a cliché.
Most of the people who do find their way here head to the eastern section of the region where Tibetan Buddhist culture is dominant. Except for the height of summer, the only way to reach this area is by flying into the city of Leh, a hub town that sits in the shadow of the 16th century Tsemo Fort. Even then, a few days of flexibility is sometimes required because of unpredictable weather conditions.
The altitude in Leh, over 11,000 feet, can be an issue for some travelers. After acclimatizing, most quickly head out of the city to trek or drive around eastern Ladakh. The roads and trails here are littered with domed stone stupas known locally as chortens. The kind of colorful strings of prayer flags that define Tibet's landscapes are also prevalent here, as are monasteries and villages that are built on seemingly unreachable rocky outcroppings.
The altitude and unpredictable weather are only two of the challenges that travelers, especially those trekking, will face. There is a price to pay for being able to journey through a place that has been untouched by the outside world. Compared to Nepal and even Bhutan and Tibet, tourism infrastructure in Ladakh is modest. Actually, the region's infrastructure in general can make travel difficult at best.
Trekking through the land
Trekking can give travelers a real view of the countryside and the local life. (Photo: Koshy Koshy[CC by 2.0]/flickr)
That said, the practice of "tea house trekking" can be found here. During a three-day hike from the villages of Likir to Tingmosgam, hikers can spend each night in local guesthouses or even in homes that have arrangements with guides. Treks in this central area pass a number of farming communities, so travelers will come face-to-face with local life even though they aren’t journeying far into the countryside.
The advantage of this trip (sometimes referred to as a “baby trek”) is that it can be undertaken at almost any time of year. Hiking expeditions to the scenic Markha Valley offer a true glimpse of the countryside, but because of the altitude (the trail tops 17,000 feet above sea level in some areas), this weeklong immersion into Ladakh can only be accomplished during a three-month window in the summer and early autumn.
Most people who come to Ladakh are looking for the physical challenge of self-supported trekking and the adventure that comes with moving through the Himalayan backcountry. But this is also a place to immerse yourself in local culture. The Tibetan staple salted yak butter tea is served everywhere, as are dishes like Thupka, which is Tibetan noodle soup. There are also plenty of foods that are unique to the region, and Leh is home to a melting pot of local, Indian, Tibetan and Chinese food. There are even several German bakeries.
Summer festival celebrations
The colorful Hemis Festival in Ladakh is held every summer. (Photo: Madhav Pai [CC by 2.0]/flickr)
During the summertime, festivals take place all around the region. In early September, the Ladakh Festival is held for 15 days in Leh and small villages all around the region. Parades, dances, polo matches and archery contests celebrate the traditions and history of Ladakh.
Individual monasteries also hold their own festivals in the summertime. These last for a few days and feature singing, music and monks performing traditional dances in brightly colored robes. The most well-known example is the Hemis Festival, which takes place every summer. During this festival, monks engage in a series of dances and performances while wearing strange masks and colorful robes.
Every 12 years, during the Tibetan Year of the Monkey, a special Hemis festival is held. During the celebrations, rare relics are displayed before being returned to storage for the next 12 years.
Thanks to its remoteness, Ladakh will most likely remain off the tourist trail. For the foreseeable future, people who can handle the altitude and the uncertain weather conditions will be treated to a land that can be considered one of the last truly exotic places on earth.
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