At the top of the world: Julley!

Pronounced joo-lay, there is something cheerful and uplifting about this Ladakhi greeting. Spoken with a spontaneous smile and a twinkle in the eyes, the locals sure know how to make you feel welcome to their high altitude, cold desert habitat.

Ladakh – the ‘Land of the High Passes’ can trigger an adrenaline rush or feel balm-like calm is most stunning parts of the Indian Himalayas.

Welcome to Ladakh. As your plane starts its descent into Leh airport, the stunning landscapes seen from the windows will either send your adrenalin into a frenzy, or invoke such calm as you might never have experienced before. But hold onto your excitement – take it easy for a day to get acclimatised before you do a jig. Walk around Leh town, gently, and park yourself in any of the wonderful cafes around. Chat up the staff and other travellers for ideas. And then pay a visit to the Donkey Sanctuary. Yes, there is such a thing – a home for hundreds of old and injured donkeys set up by a South African lady. All co-habitating jovially (the donkeys, not the lady), the unique experience has to be your own to savour.

As you stand in the main market of Leh, you cannot miss the 9-storey, mud plastered Leh Palace towering over the town on a hill. Built in the 16th century when King Sengge Namgyal moved the capital from Shey to Leh, the palace is a maze of corridors and rooms, all bare except the prayer room. Legend has it that the foundations of the palace entomb bodies of invading Mongols; would not suggest you go digging though. Follow this up with a trip to the Shey Palace 10 km away – the seat of power for nearly 600 years. Its main attraction is the 8m high statue of a seated Sakyamuni Buddha built of copper and brass and gilded with precious stones; it is the world’s biggest such image in Mahayana Buddhism.

To treat yourself to a kaleidoscope of changing colours in the setting sun, visit the Shanti Stupa, funded by the Japanese. The point also offers clear views of the Stok range and its highest peak, the Stok Kangri at 20,135 feet. For the adventurous, a trek to the summit can be a prominent feather in the cap. On a clear day, you can even see the Khardung La (La means Pass in Ladakhi) – the world’s highest motorable road in the world at 18,380 feet. It was built by the Army in 1973; sadly, 18 men lost their lives doing so.

Do mark a trip to this pass, a few hours away, on your itinerary. Better still, go further ahead and camp for the night in the Nubra valley and say hello to double humped camels found there. This road also goes to the Siachen glacier, where the Indian and Pakistani armies are in a state of permanent war. However, you can go there only if you have a strong Army contact.

Your next drive can be over the world’s second highest motorable road – the Chang La at 18,586 feet; taking you to one of the most spectacular creations of nature: the Pangong Tso (lake). About 130 km long, extending over 5 km at its widest, the salt water body lies a third in India and the rest in China. On a lucky day, you can see a rainbow arching over it. But you can always get to play with brown headed gulls – all it takes are a few biscuit crumbs to attract scores out of nowhere. On the way back, keep an eye out for the Himalayan Marmots. Cousins of the common squirrel, these tan furred, stocky animals weigh about 8 kgs – they are extremely agile for their build, darting into their burrows at the slightest hint of danger. It is a pity some migrant workers on road building projects hunt thisendangered species for food.

Head out to Tso Moriri after that, declared a ‘Sacred Gift for a Living Planet’ by the WWF at its annual conference in 2000. The lake is about 25 km long and 5-7 km wide, and home to over 150 species of birds. Legend goes that a devil once drank up the water of the nearby Tso Kar. Feeling he had overdone it, he spluttered and sprayed water all over; this spray fell at different spots to create the Tso Moriri and Regul Tso. It is common to find the Kiang, or the Tibetan Wild Ass, around Tso Kar; chasing them in your car is not permissible. The lake is also rich with salt deposits that were an important source of the income for the nomadic Changpas until very recently.

This region around the lakes is known as the Changthang, an extension of the Northern Tibetan Plateau. A highly fragile ecosystem exists here, providing a home to vulnerable species like the Kiang, Tibetan Argali, Blue Sheep, Snow Leopard, Tibetan Wolf and Lynx. The Changpas also move within this area mostly, pitching rebos (tents made of yak hair) wherever their herds of livestock find food. Go ahead and befriend them, but do be sensitive to the fact that they are still mostly living in their own time capsule despite having to also adapt to the modern world around them.

Ladakh can be very slow and quiet but not so if you happen to be at the Hemis Monastery during its annual festival, held in June or July. The most revered of all in Ladakh, it was founded in the 13th century by Buddhist sage Gyalwa Gotsangpa. His name means ‘vulture’ [Got] ‘nest’ [Tsang]; just like a vulture’s nest, Hemis too is located high up in a bowl formed by surrounding peaks. For two days, masked monks (lamas) perform Cham dances in costumes made of brocade and silk, in bright golds, reds, blues and greens. These dances originated in the 9th century A.D. in Tibet when monk Palji Dorge, dancing and dressed in a similar dress with a wide brimmed black hat and high boots, killed King Langdarma; the latter was persecuting Buddhists because he felt the rise of Buddhism was threatening his religion, Bon.

The crowds at the festival can be overwhelming; it is a wonder no tragic stampedes have occurred ever. A senior lama is designated with the task of keeping people under control with a whip; more symbolic in its power, it is supposed to bless those it touches. Hemis is also the flag off point for the annual Leh marathon in July; yes, people come from all over the world to run 26 miles and 385 yards at this altitude!

Each monastery around Leh has something unique to showcase or a tale to tell. The most imposing structure is of the 16th century Thiksey monastery, home to over 100 lamas aged 5 to 80. Set the alarm for 5:00 a.m. to attend the morning prayers – just observing the monks chant in unison is therapeutic. The Phiyang monastery was once famous for its flagpole; if you could reach this spot, you were allowed to seek pardon for your crimes. You can look up the remains of the ancient texts written with gold, silver and copper at Basgo. Likewise, go discovering prominent ones including Matho, Likir, Lamayuru, Stakna, Chemde and Thaktok.

Every monastery has its annual festival; try coinciding your trip with at least one. While you are there, chat up the friendly lamas who always love to tell stories over butter tea (containing butter and salt – it’s an acquired taste) – including those of lamas who pray wearing no clothes in ice caves high up and can fly.

Finish your trip with a walk along the Indus River, called the Sengge Tsangpo or the Lion River in Mansarover where it originates; you can actually see a full moon rise over it if you are there at the right time. A one time visit to Ladakh will not suffice, you will always pine to go back.

Know Before You Go

  • Best time to go is between June – September but you can never be sure of the weather and roads. In winters, temperatures drop to below -30 degrees Celsius.
  • Always travel with extra woolens even in the summers.
  • Ladakh has a very gentle society – respect the locals and their culture.
  • Daily flights go to Leh. You can even drive up from Manali or Srinagar; it takes two days to Leh from these places. Both drives are exceptionally beautiful.
  • Do set aside at least 10 days to experience Ladakh – even then you will leave a lot out.
  • Mobiles barely work anywhere except in Leh.
  • You may need a permit to visit certain places; these can be easily arranged for in Leh.

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