Ladakh: India’s “Little Tibet”
July 14, 2014 | By Mitch & Jewels |
Ladakh feels nothing like the rest of India (we expect, having not been yet). It is a Tibetan Buddhist area high in the Himalayas; the capital city Leh is 3,500 meters altitude. And there is something so beautiful and serene in this high, cold desert and barren Himalayan landscape that could give anyone a sense of the sublime.
Many people had recommended that we go to Ladakh, but when we looked up information and images online, we were dubious. Ladakh is far in the northwest of India, just next to Kashmir, surrounded by dotted lines instead of solid ones for borders, and appears to be a barren high-altitude mountainous desert wasteland.
Since we have spent a bit of time in (strikingly beautiful) places that could be categorized as “barren high-altitude mountainous desert wastelands” already on this trip, we weren’t sure that we were going to gain any new appreciation for this type of environment. But for a number of reasons, it made a lot of sense to come here for two weeks. So we did. And wouldn’t you know… Ladakh is incredible. Yes, there are some similarities to landscapes we have seen elsewhere, but the Himalayas are just… MORE.
Before we jump into anything more, we learned about a dozen words/phrases in Ladakhi (the local language), but none is more important than “Jullay!,” which can be used for hello, goodbye, and thank you. Plus, we got immediate laughs out of all the locals when we introduced ourselves as “Mitch and Julie….”
The main city in Ladakh is Leh (called Leh City by many locals), and is accessible by a couple of roads, most people coming by land using the road from Manali. It’s only open seasonally (since we have been here, the road to get here from the rest of India opened) and apparently makes for a gorgeous but nauseating ride.
Alternatively, you can fly in and out from Delhi for reasonable prices, which we did. Coming in, after a nap for the first part of the flight, we were floored to wake up to views of the Himalayas that were literally jaw-dropping. The descent into the Leh airport is a little harrowing (big props to the captain; the plane wings have to skirt the sides of the mountains).
On the way out, we went through about 10 security checks at the airport, including 3 pat downs and several metal detectors. However, somehow a guy who had a ceremonial knife (we can only assume; but there was a highly decorated scabbard strapped to his torso) was in the waiting area with us. And there was some lady who didn’t have her ID to go through the security line (she said her husband, who was already past security, had it) who also made it through with no issues. So weird.
Zeepata: The Best Guesthouse Ever
Knowing we would get into Leh after an absurdly long journey from Bangkok, we booked a room via email that looked good from wikitravel and tripadvisor. And for the first time, we actually loved it so much that we stayed there every night that we were in Leh for our two weeks in Ladakh.
Zeepata Guesthouse is located in Upper Changspa and about a 7 minute walk from the main part of town, either down Leh’s one main road with lots of traffic or through little back pathways that were really adorable. But despite its proximity, it was super quiet near the little Gomang Stupa and felt like you were more in a remote village than in the city. For 600-700 rupees ($10-$12 USD), you can get a lovely room with big windows and wooden floors that is super clean and well-maintained. We had a shared bathroom, but they seem to clean the shared bathrooms about 4 times a day, so they were also spotless. (Rooms with private bathroom were about $15 USD). There were rooms available nearby that were 400 rupees and up (about $7), but the quality at Zeepata was massively better.
What really makes the difference is that the owners of Zeepata, Palmo and her husband (and their family) really take care of you. You are invited to use their kitchen for filtered water, hang out, use wifi, or eat meals in their really beautiful dining area, and enjoy the roof deck where there are gorgeous views of the surrounding mountains and Shanti Stupa. And they provide whatever services you need – they arrange taxis, tours, do laundry, let you leave bags while you go off on short trips, and make great breakfasts and other meals.
Palmo has the best laugh and if you sit down for more than 2 minutes she will appear and insist that you drink a cup of tea. On our last morning, as we were preparing to leave for the airport at 5:30am, Palmo appeared to make sure that we (and the taxi driver) had tea before we left. One morning, we told her that we were leaving early for a trek and asked if we could have breakfast before we left. Since we were running late, she just went ahead and made something. My stomach didn’t react so well because it was super early in the morning, and when she saw I wasn’t eating, she said “tell me whatever it is that you need… you can even call me mom!”
Our first day in Ladakh, we got in early in the morning and were zonked after a 3am wake-up and annoying transit from Bangkok, plus needed to get used to the altitude. So as soon as we arrived, we had breakfast then proceeded to spend the rest of the day nestled in blankets in bed while enjoying views of the snowy Himalayas.
Leh City, the Capital City of Ladakh
Leh, or Leh City as it seems to be called around Ladakh, is the capital of Ladakh and feels like a small but bustling city at 3,500 meters altitude. We were shocked to realize just how serious people are when they talk about “tourist season” from mid-June to September. From the time we arrived on June 10th until we got back from a 3-day meditation retreat on June 14th, there was a marked change in the number of tourists (both western and Indian) as well as the number of guesthouses and restaurants that were open.
This year there were big preparations for Kala Chakra, including the Dalai Lama’s arrival. He arrived while we were in Ladakh, though unfortunately on our trek and didn’t actually get to be in the welcome party. For his arrival, people lined up on the road to the airports, and hung welcome signs from dozens of villages. He has a home/center about a half hour from Leh, and will be in personal retreat and doing other teachings until Kala Chakra starts on 3 July, which we will unfortunately miss (or maybe fortunately; the city will be a madhouse then!).
Leh is super dry here and we have taken to wearing bandanas over our noses and mouths. We are surrounded by the Himalayas – beautiful mountain ridges cloaked in snow. It’s amazing how humbling mountains are. They are such a prominent reminder of how small we are. The city itself is bizarre, with tons of traffic on one central road, and tons of construction everywhere. The main pillars of the local economy are tourism and the army, which has a large presence here; both of which mean a lot of infrastructure development. But the weather is so brutal throughout the winter that there is really just activity May or June through September.
The urban planning (if you would call it that) of Leh is really interesting. There’s one main road that is a hot mess of congestion. Then there are tons of little back alleyways, typically lined with stone walls and often paralleling little streams that are the towns main drainage system. The Old City in particular consists of small winding alleyways and these adorable houses built into the hills that look (and probably are) centuries old, made of mud brick with tiny doorways. One of the guidebooks we looked in said that Leh is considered to be the only remaining place where you get the feel of historical Tibetan architecture and village layout. If you look at many of the houses or guesthouses where construction is going on, you can watch them prepare mud bricks with little molds. It seems like mud bricks are the basis for construction for even the fancier or stucco buildings, which is pretty neat.
It’s also interesting that, while many (some?) of the buildings seem to have modern plumping, people seem to use communal water pumps and the streams for most of their water needs. Even at our guesthouse where there are multiple bathrooms, a clothes washing machine, and a sink in the kitchen, the family seems to do their laundry and some of the washing by the communal water pump outside. And it’s not uncommon to see families washing their clothes or bathing in the streams running along many of the streets/alleys, or the one river in town.
While Leh City is the Ladakhi capital and the only “city” per se, it also has many more rural elements to it. In addition to the water situation (who knows why, maybe the communal pumps are free and water in buildings isn’t?), and the myriad farm animals wandering around the streets (cows, donkeys, chickens), there is also a lot of farmland. If you walk through the back alleyways, including the ones between our guesthouse and the main part of town, you will see a ton of agricultural land. Some of the guesthouses are even larger farmhouses with active farmland where they have converted extra rooms for tourists.
The farmland is really pretty, plus it also paints a picture of Ladakhi rural and village life, even if you were never to leave the capital. Since we are here right at the beginning of the season, we saw a lot of the farmers preparing their land for growing, and in the time we were here we saw some fields go from being barren to being filled with seedlings. They use yaks to till the soil and prepare the rows for planting – and if you walk by at the right time, it’s neat to see that they urge the yaks along by singing to them. (No, that’s not a typo, they actually sing to the yaks! It’s so sweet!) And it’s interesting that in much of the work, from farming to construction (although not as much in the municipal projects), it seems that women do as much of the work as men do.
Leh’s Surprisingly Great Food
The food in Leh has been surprisingly delicious! You can get a variety of cuisines (Indian, Tibetan, Nepali, Chinese, Italian, Korean, Israeli, Continental) and have great quality, especially considering that you’re 3,500 meters up in the middle of the Himalayas. Three quick specific highlights were:
1. Wonderland – which had a rooftop eating area, a friendly Tibetan staff, and something like 4 different kitchens (one for each cuisine on their menu). Plus their pastries were awesome (if you go, you need to eat the chocolate balls and lemon cake).
2. Bon Appetit – which was a remarkably hip experience here. It’s tucked away down this little alley and when you walk in, you feel like you’re in some other world. It’s super trendy with nice décor and ambient music, plus gorgeous views and incredibly tasty entrees for just marginally more money.
3. Café Jeevan – which we unfortunately didn’t discover until we were preparing to leave, was right near our guesthouse and felt like it was in some hippie town with a cozy atmosphere and tasty Italian food.
Activities In and Around Leh
Since our blog-readers seem to prefer shorter posts, we tried to break out a few of our Ladakh experiences into other posts:
We spent a lot of time with the Mahabodhi International Meditation Center, including their 3-day meditation retreat, their 1-day Sunday program, and taking classes at their yoga center in the city.
We did a short (3-day, 2-night) homestay trek from Zingchen to Chilling, which gave us a deep appreciation for the local surroundings.
We went on a 2-day trip to Pangong Lake, which is one of the tourist-must-do’s of Ladakh. (The other must-do’s, which most people think are the Nubra Valley and Tsomoriri Lake, we skipped).
We went to the Donkey Sanctuary in Leh City. While it realistically should be part of this blog post, there was just so much to say and photos to post about those 3 hours that it needed to be on it’s own. “Just one dead donkey…” Shakes head…
Leh Palace & Namagyal Tsemo Monastery/Fort
One afternoon, we trekked up to Leh Palace and a monastery that is even higher on a mountain overlooking the city. It’s not a long walk, but between the altitude and how steep the climb up is, it’ll still take the wind out of you.
The trek up started in the Old City, and we found various signs pointing us in the right direction through tiny winding alleys and around old homes and buildings that made us feel like we stepped into another era.
The palace itself was not too exciting – the most impressive things are its immensity and its perch, plus the views. The corridors and rooms are mostly barren and in ruins, aside from the still-functional temple room in the middle. So you just wander around, occasionally peering into dark rooms with dirt floors, some of which have buckets of sand or other construction materials in them.
There are a couple of art exhibits, which is bizarre, including one on Czech Castles, put on by the Czech Embassy or Museum or some such.
From the palace, you can trek up a fairly steep and dusty mountain to an old monastery and fortress, Namagyal Tsemo. (Alternatively, you can take a car of up a paved pathway and stairs from the other sides, but it’s a fun little trek with tons of switchbacks and shortcuts.) The views are epic and it is quite beautiful with old prayer flags flapping in the wind.
There are two little temple rooms, one with an angry Buddha (black and 6-armed) and one with a happy Maitrya (future) Buddha. Apparently women traditionally aren’t allowed into the angry one, but it’s not enforced here.
On the way to Pangong Lake, we stopped for about an hour at Thikse Monastery which is a short drive outside of Leh City. It was beautiful and special to walk around. Like so many of the monasteries here, it’s situated in a place and way where you quickly feel spiritual, regardless of how you felt before. It’s perched on top of a mountain, so you have views of the valley all around, and you are in your own little world, separated from the areas around you.
The real highlight was the Maitreya (Future) Buddha, which was astonishingly beautiful and left us awestruck. It’s huge, and we were just able to go into the viewing room to see the top part, but it was one of those spiritual-artistic experiences that made us drop to our knees.
Second to the Buddha (or maybe not), the other highlight was watching a monklet (as I have decided to call the child monk novices) buy a ton of candy and chips and then proceed to hide it under his robes as he left the little candy shop. We partly felt bad snapping pictures, but at the same time felt that his furtiveness in candy/chip acquisition warranted it.
As usual, here’s a more complete collection of our photos in and around Leh City. To view them as a slideshow, just click on any one and then scroll right and left. =)