Last updated on March 14th, 2019 at 11:28 am
Ladakh is known as a boring place. And that’s a good thing. With the madness that the rest of India brings, the country’s northernmost region offers much respite, which is what has made it such a popular tourist destination. Too popular in fact.
Last year the tourism minister said during the annual Ladakh festival that after spending years trying to get more people to come to Ladakh since it opened to tourists in 1974, they’re now trying to prevent so many people from coming. The one main city, Leh, is getting overrun with tourists and they don’t have the infrastructure to deal with the summer onslaught.
In a country of nearly 1.2 billion people, this region within Jammu and Kashmir state has a mere 200,000 or so people scattered across an area about the size of Maine. Though that population density isn’t anything out of the ordinary for some parts of the world, for India it’s a rarity.
When the monsoon thrashes the country all summer the desert of Ladakh stays virtually rain free and not too hot, not too cold. The short tourist season runs from about June to October. Outside of those months the road to Himachal Pradesh (Manali) is blocked by snow while the route to Kashmir (Srinigar) stays open a while longer (check the LAHDC Leh site for road status updates). Riding a motorcycle through Ladakh is considered one of the best road trips in the world, but it’s recommended entering Ladakh via Kashmir and leaving through Himachal Pradesh as it’s easier to acclimatize to the 3500m elevation of Ladakh.
Since Ladakh just has the one main airport in Leh, the city acts as the hub where travellers start and end their trip. Unfortunately many travellers just stay there and go nowhere else. Leh is a great chilled out town with enough sights to see like Leh Palace (modelled as a mini-version of the Potala Palace in Lhasa, Tibet), old town and Shanti Stupa, a Buddhist shrine built to promote world peace that offers a magnificent panoramic view of Leh valley. The downside is that Leh is crowded and polluted. The town’s ancient roads were designed for foot traffic, not cars, and definitely not the massive jeeps that dominate the roadscape, belching out blue exhaust as they crawl along the streets.
The town is choking in smog. In an otherwise tranquil, clean and pure Himalayan environment, a view of Leh from a distance reveals a cloud of smog crushing the town with toxic gas. Wearing a mask in Leh is unbelievably more essential than even in Delhi because the narrow roads and lack of sidewalks force pedestrians to walk right among the cars, which are often idling due to traffic and almost always emissions uncontrolled. Leh’s water supply went from pure, clean mountain-fresh drinking water to an undrinkable mess that now demands filtering for all but the hardiest stomachs.
Tourism has clearly taken its toll on Leh, but the countryside is far from overrun and offers a number of sightseeing activities. Just a few kilometers outside of the city is Shey, site of the king’s former palace and home to a massive copper and gold Buddha statue as well as Shey Monastery and Shey Nunnery.
The picturesque Thiksay Monastery, which has a guest house that both men and women can stay at, isn’t much farther. As one of the larger monasteries in Ladakh, and because of its proximity to Leh (just a 40-minute drive), it gets a good number of visitors in the summer who come to see the impressive Maitreya Buddha statue and attend the morning puja ritual complete with blaring horns, pounding drums and droning monks. It’s well worth staying over at Thiksay for a while to enjoy a peaceful time at the monastery and to go for day trips to Shey and hiking in the mountains.
Mahabodhi International Meditation Center is a spiritual community just a short drive out of Leh, but far enough to feel completely removed from the city. Located within walking distance of the Indus River, this expansive community is home to more than 500 students, teachers, monks, nuns, elders and travellers. The original intent of the community was to provide education to the many village children in Ladakh who don’t have access to an education, but has since expanded by adding a home for the elderly, a hospital and other community services. Mahabodhi runs a guest house, making the community a great spot to get away and do some meditation in one of their mountainside caves or at one of their meditation programs. It’s also a fine volunteer opportunity for those who plan to stick around for a while.
Aside from its spiritual tourism, Ladakh is also known for its mountains. Trekking in Ladakh, though not as established as Nepal, offers many routes from simple valley strolls to high altitude treks across the barren moonlike landscape and up dizzyingly high passes. For those who like real solitude, scores of monasteries dot the countryside, some so remote that it takes days of trekking to reach, which can make a great stopping point along a trek.
Though most come to Ladakh for a peaceful time to visit monasteries or trek in the mountains, adventurers can kick up the adrenaline factor by rafting through Zanskar or climbing the 6000m peaks, such as the easily accessible Stok La just outside of Leh.
Mountains and monasteries. Ladakh is best known for these two things, both of which invite the soul-seeking traveller to turn inward, making Ladakh an ideal spot for contemplative travel. Though Leh does have a lot to offer, to really embrace the essence of Ladakh requires stepping out onto its cratered surface and exploring the vast emptiness beyond the people and pollution.
images: The Mindful Word (Creative Commons BY-SA)