As Boeing 737 banked gracefully to line up for descent and in every direction, peaks started gaining in height. A vast valley appeared with ochre-tinted mountains on either side, and sheer walls of merlot scree debris tumbled to the serpentine Indus River. The skies were a bright turquoise blue.

Its 400 hundred years old, nine floored, imposing edifice, built on a bluff that soars over the city center with its upward tapering walls.
They constructed this shimmering white structure in 1991 with Japanese money, and it provides the best panoramic views of the city and surrounding mountains.

Day 2

We spent the day visiting the main monasteries around Leh.

Thikse — The stunner is often called Ladakh’s Patola Palace.
Hemis Courtyard
From a distance, they resemble rows of half-melted snowmen, crumbling white monuments, with the contours of once square bases, conical middles, and pointed tops now soft and imprecise. These chortens contain the remains of lamas and monks from the monastery attached to the palace, or members of the royal family and their possessions.

Day 3

Today we head north to Nubra valley, with an overnight homestay at Sumur.

Two humped Bactrian camels roam here, a legacy of 19th-century trade routes with Central Asia and China.
Diskit Monastery & Scree slopes

Day 4

Day 5 & 6

The next two days were for the Pangong Tso Lake, made memorable by the ‘3 Idiots’ movie. The trip took 5 hours, and we crossed Changla Pass, at 17,600 ft.

Day 7

We take off for Lamayuru, along with a mask festival on the way. Our first stop was at Phyang Monastery, where monks were performing dances in fantastically colorful brocade attire and monstrous masks. The courtyard setting and tall surrounding mountains lend themselves to an intimate feel; most of the spectators were locals.

Phyang -monks performing dances in colorful attire and monstrous masks
Given the right season and light conditions, the rivers show two distinct colors — the green-tinged Indus river that originates in the Tibetan Plateau near the Mansarovar range, and the gleaming blue Zanskar river has its source in the Zanskar valley.
Most of these monasteries continue to survive today because of the faith and determination of a few caretakers and monks who are happy to show a stray traveler around.

Day 8

The first stop, Alchi, is a small hidden jewel of a monastery. Maintained by Likir monastery, it dates back some 900 years and is no more an active religious center. One of its walls features thousands of miniature-sized pictures of the Buddha painted in natural pigments of ocher, black, green, azurite, and gold — the art form is very distinct from orthodox Tibetan conventions.

Lamayuru's history dates back to the 11th century when a Buddhist scholar laid the foundation stone of a monastery here. It is believed that his prayers caused drying up a lake that fed an entire village; and because the water receded, the place got moonlike craters.

Day 10

Day 11

Today we said goodbye to Namgyal at Leh and proceed to another high-altitude glacial Tsomoriri Lake (4500 meters). Compared to Pangong Lake, this is much smaller at 26 km and lies all within India.

At the lakeside, we choose to stay in pucca rooms at Nomadic Campsite, with the comfort of hot water and en-suite bathrooms. Here the lake was far away, glistening like emeralds. Lush green fields of wheat lay between the camp and the lake.

Day 12

The Korzok Gustor is an ancient dance festival held at the monastery by the same name, next to Tsomoriri Lake. It is noted for its Black Hat Dance, a masked dance performed to ward off evil forces from nature. We had arrived a day early and saw mock sessions without the masks.

These festivals are a day out for the local village.

Day 13

We rise to a cold grey morning, with a storm building up. Snowflakes floated in the air and the light was surreal. We stopped for pictures at Tsokar Lake. Soon we said goodbyes to Dorjay and shifted to another vehicle, to take us to Manali. Lunch was at Pang — Maggi soup and Noodles.

Gata loops

Day 14

We make our way to Manali, crossing the Rohtang Pass. The change of scenery is very dramatic–as one moves from a barren valley to lush greenery. We were told that all the rain falls on the Manali side of the valley, leaving the other side dry. Rohtang means “Valley of the skulls” and the ever-present fog and a few upturned trucks lend credibility to its scary moniker.

Day 15


Daily life

The lifestyles are pastoral. At altitudes of 10,000 ft plus, and with agriculture season limited to four months, the choice of what to plant is already made for the Ladakhis. As elsewhere on the Tibetan plateau, the principal crop is barley and the principal diet is its roasted flour. About two-thirds of the fields are planted with barley, the rest with fast-growing varieties of wheat. Most farmers have small fields of peas and gardens of turnips. In the valley below 11,000 ft, there are apricots and walnut trees. In the very highest settlements where cultivation does not work, people depend on animal husbandry alone.

Religion & Philosophy

With 50% population following Mahayana Buddhism, religion manifests in many facets of life. For centuries, monks from Ladakh studied in Tibetan monasteries, and there was a steady interchange of both merchandise and ideas. Traditionally, each family gave away a son to the local monastery. But to a fresh set of eyes, it is the landscape that exudes spirituality; this “land of mountain passes” is revered at each step, by marks of love and prayer. Every crag, every twist in the trail, every summit of every incline, and every entrance to every valley receives affection: a garland of prayer flags, an enormous prayer wheel, a dedicatory chorten, or a mani (a wall of stones inscribed with mantras). These are messages for the gods whose home this is. Each person who passes adds a touch, in prayer at least, so that the entire landscape feels charged with a good vibe.

Modernity Vs Old culture

Like many other ancient civilizations that opened up in the 20th century, Ladakh faces the predicament of dealing with modernity. This society lived for centuries on a self-sufficient model of farming, animal husbandry, and barter, and they were content to exchange extra crops and dried cheese for few utensils, salt, etc. that they didn’t produce. Extra wealth was stored in lapis lazuli, and the concept of cash and inflation didn’t exist. Farming and house building were communal exercises. They produced all that they needed — food, clothing, and housing. And then the tourist arrived, happy to spend $100 a day, and that has turned their life and convictions upside down!

A difficult future?

It is easy to put on sepia-tinted glasses and wax lyrical about the ‘old world charm’ — women winnowing grain in the open air while singing songs, or the whole family perched on the floor in a semi-dark, warm hearth sharing chang and having a good time, etc. Or one can choose a patronizing tone and look at the situation from a western prism and only notice the lack of basic medical facilities, high mortality rates, and the sheer effort needed to stay alive at minus 30 degrees centigrade for months together, without electricity, gas stove or geyser.

Om Mahi Padma Hun — “the planet spins on faith.”



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Ajay Goel

Ajay Goel

This is a place where I post essays and random musings.