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Review: Ladakh



Impressions of Ladakh

  • By SilverTraveller ESW

    2468 reviews

    Ribbon Ribbon Ribbon Ribbon Ribbon

  • Jun 2011
  • Husband

119 people found this review helpful

At 3500m (11500ft) Leh literally takes your breath away. For those flying into Leh, the advice is to spend the first day doing nothing and not to attempt too much on the second day to allow time for acclimatisation.

The flight from Delhi to Leh which takes about 75 minutes. The journey by road takes 4 days. The flight takes you over the top of the Himalayas with fantastic views of the snow covered peaks and ridges. All flights are in the morning as the wind gets up in the afternoon which can make it dangerous to fly. The plane flies up the Indus valley, with Leh and the airport below, before turning steeply round the edge of a mountain ridge and dropping rapidly to land.

The area is high level desert surrounded by steep snow covered mountains. Melt water is collected and used to irrigate fields so there are green oases in the bottom of the valleys.

Traditionally everyone was a farmer and 5 acres would feed a family and produce a surplus to sell. Land holdings are surrounded by stone walls and fields are tiny. All work is done by hand. Individual land holdings are surrounded by a stone wall with a small entry gate into the garden. Inside are apple and apricot trees. The ground is divide up into small plots about 6’ by 3’. Each plot is surrounded by a small bank of earth. The ground looks level but slopes slightly to help with irrigation. Water is taken to each plot along channels and flow is controlled by sluices. Every family is allocated a time slot for water. The water flows into the top of the garden and a small break is made in the wall of the top plot. When the plot is well flooded, the breach is sealed and another made in the next plot. This continues until all the plots have been watered. There is no wastage of water or run off. Weeds growing along the irrigation channels are cut for fodder.

Before the days of refrigerators, families had a root cellar to keep food during the summer. This was a large ‘cave’ dug out of the ground and the hole was covered with a large stone. These can still be seen in places, although are no longer used.

Families keep a cow or yaks which provide milk and may have a donkey for carrying goods. Milk is used to make curd, butter and cheese. Families used to move with the animals to higher pastures for the summer. Now the old go but most of the youngsters move to Leh and work in tourism during the summer months. On the high mountain pastures, male yaks, females with no young and young yaks are left to graze during the summer.

Willow and poplar trees grow everywhere. Poplar wood is used for window frames, rafters, support beams and scaffolding. The willow is coppiced and branches used to line the underside of roofs. Wild pink rose bushes were in flower adding a welcome splash of colour to the scenery.

Houses are made from sun dried mud bricks which are then plastered and whitewashed. Bricks are made locally and cost about 3 rupees a brick. Cement bricks are about 7 rupees and may be used for the corners of buildings to give added strength. Some newer and more expensive houses have stone brick bases with mud above. In the towns the houses are low with small, very dark shops underneath and living quarters above.

Farmhouses are much bigger and many have 3 storeys. Some are surrounded by their fields, others have the fields some distance away. Traditionally the animals were kept on the ground floor and the family lived above. Fodder was stored on top of the roof. Now animals are kept in small sheds and yards by the buildings.

There was a huge living kitchen with wood or dung burning stove which was used in the winter months to provide heat and cooking. The walls have shelves round the walls with all the cooking pots and pans displayed as well as plates, bowls, cups, ladles etc all made from metal. During the summer cooking would be done outside in ovens heated by wood embers. Now houses use small gas rings in the summer. The Ladakhis don’t use chairs – they sit on cushions round the sides of the room.

The government provided solar panels for electricity 20-25 years ago. For the last 15-17 years mains electricity has been provided but the supply is very unreliable and often cuts out for a few minutes.

Most guest houses have a water supply and flush toilets. However many houses don’t have water supplied to the house and all water has to be collected from pumps or from the irrigation channels.

Most of the women still wear traditional dress which looks a bit like a long coat with a gathered waist. Most of them are made from dark material, with different weights for summer and winter. They usually wear a brightly coloured head scarf tied over their hair. A few of the older men wear the traditional dress. This is a bit like a short dressing gown worn over leggings. Most wear western clothes. School uniform is western and the baseball cap seems an essential part of the uniform. There is no obesity and children don’t eat crisps of sweets on the way to and from school – or use mobile phones.

The scenery is stunning. In places the river valleys are broad and the road runs across flat stoney or sandy desert. In other places the river has cut down into a deep gorge and roads are cut out on a narrow ledge on the hillside with steep mountain on one side and unguarded drop on the other. They are narrow with many bends. They don’t seem wide enough for two vehicles to pass but somehow they seem to manage, often at the narrowest bits. Overtaking can be hazardous. The driver sounds his horn and overtakes trusting that the overtaken vehicle will slow down and pull to one side. It usually does. Shrines along the road and remains of lorries below remind you not all do.

There were very bad floods in summer 2010 which washed out many bridges and roads. Official figures report 500 dead although unofficial figures put this much higher. In Summer 2011, temporary bailey bridges had been built on main roads crossing rivers that had deep scoured channels. On side roads bridges were still being rebuilt and streams have to be forded. The roads are still in very bad condition in places and locals are employed to repair the roads. Houses were damaged and soil was washed off fields. In other places there are thick deposits of silt.

Ladakh has what the guide books describe as the world's highest motorable pass at 5602m (18380ft) at KhardongLa, although a modern GPS survey now gives this an elevation of 5,359m, making slightly lower than ChangLa Pass at 5360m (17590 ft). There are two higher passes in Tibet.

ChangLa Pass gives access to the beautiful Pangong Lake which is a popular trip from Leh.

Rafting is available on the Zanskar river and during the spring and summer melt there are ‘exciting’ rapids. It is a good drive up the Zanskar gorge to Chilling, home of metal workers.

Nubra and Shyok valleys reached across KhardungLa Pass are famous for their sand dunes. These lie on an old trade route to Yarkand. Trading ceased in 1949 following the communist takeover of China and the Bacterian camels used on the route were set free. These are now owned and looked after by local families and provide rides for tourists.

There are Gompas (monasteries) in all the main settlements. These are built on the highest part of the village, often on a high cliff. A road goes to the bottom of the Gompa but there are always stairs to climb which can be quite steep. Many are several storeys high and dwarf the buildings below. There is always a courtyard where the yearly festival takes place, several Lhakhangs (temples), residence for the Head Monk and sleeping quarters for the other monks. Some have guest house and restaurant attached.

Inside the Lhakhang, opposite the doorway is the chair for the head monk and often a chair for the Dalai Lama, with their pictures placed on the seat. Benches for the monks are arranged at right angles. Every available space on the walls inside the temples is covered with paintings and there are many statues, some several metres high. There are also brightly coloured wall hangings. Above the doorway of the main temple is a rolled up Tanka (or Thangka) which is a painting with embroidery of a Buddhist deity or else a mandala (sacred symbols). This is unrolled and hung up for a few days each year during the festival.

The most important Lhakhang is called the Dukhang (Main Assembly Room).

Shoes must always be removed before entering the buildings. It is advisable to take a spare pair of socks as floors can be dusty.

Try and visit Thicksey monastery for morning prayers at 6.30. The chanting of the monks is hypnotic.

Unlike the other monasteries, Alchi is built on flat ground in part of the village. The buildings are 12thC and were abandoned by the 15thC and left untouched. The wall paintings are beautiful and completely different to those seen elsewhere in Ladakh. Photographs are not allowed at Alchi. Basgo has paintings of a similar age and photographs are allowed here.

Prayer flags are seen everywhere in Ladakh, on bridges, at the passes, on buildings, on flag poles. Most are small squares of brightly coloured material attached to a long string and are inscribed with prayers and mantras. As wind passes over the surface of the flags, the air is purified and sanctified by the Mantras.The prayers are scattered in the wind to spread good will and compassion. There are five colours which arranged in a specific order from left to right: blue, white, red, green, and then yellow. Blue symbolises sky/space, white symbolises air/wind, red symbolises fire, green symbolises water, and yellow symbolises earth.

There are white chortens (or Stupas) around the Gompas and in villages. Some are old and gradually collapsing into white rubble. Others like the Shanti Stupa in Leh are new. They are an integral part of the Buddhist faith and helping to spread Buddhims and act as a protector and to bring peace and happiness. Holy relics are placed in the centre. Always go clockwise round them.

The chorten is made up of 5 distinct parts. The pointed top represents the crown of Buddha, with the body, hands and legs making up the 4 ‘layers’ beneath. The square base represents the throne. It is also symbolic of the five elements of nature, fire, earth, water, air and ether (when a person dies their body is converted into ether).

In places there are small buildings housing three chortens painted in different colours which keep the locality safe. They represent Avolikiteswar (yellow) for compassion, Manjusri (white) for wisdom and Vajrapani (blue) who is the rightful Buddha and fights against ignorance.

At the start of every settlement and often associated with chortens are Mani Walls. These are beautifully made platforms of stones. Some are quite old. They are faced with stones and carved stones with the mantra ‘Om Mani Padme Hum’ or images of Buddha are placed on top of the wall. Again go round clockwise.

Large prayer wheels are found in every village and all gompas. They are brightly coloured metal drums inscribed with mantras and contain tightly wrapped rolls of mantras inside. The wheels are turned clockwise to scatter the mantras to the winds. There may be a bell rung by a rod on the prayer wheel to count the number of turns. Gompas often have long rows of small prayer wheels.

At the start of every settlement and often associated with chortens are MANI WALLS. These are beautifully made platform like rows of stones. Some are quite old. They are faced with stones and carved stones with the mantra ‘Om Mani Padme Hum’ or images of Buddha are placed on top of the wall. Again go round clockwise.

Large PRAYER WHEELS are found in every village and all Gompas. They are brightly coloured metal drums inscribed with mantras and contain tightly wrapped rolls of mantras inside. The wheels are turned clockwise to scatter the mantras to the winds. There may be a bell rung by a rod on the prayer wheel to count the number of turns. Gompas often have long rows of small prayer wheels.

Ladakh still has a King and Queen. Their roles are ceremonial rather than governmental, although the queen has been elected as a member of the government. They now live in the palace at Stok. The remains of earlier PALACES can be seen at Leh and Shey. These are massive mud brick structures which rise steeply up the sides of the valley. The walls are massive and slope slightly inwards to increase stability. Inside is a rabbit warren of rooms and buildings with the family temples. The lower levels were used for stables and storage with servants quarters above and the royal family living on the upper floors. Leh and Shey are being restored by the the Archaeological Survey of India.


We spent 12 days in Ladakh, arranged through Audley Travel

Our itinerary looked like this:

Fly to Delhi Fly to Leh, spending 3 nights in the Grand Dragon in Leh; visiting Leh, Thicksey, Hemis, Pangong Lake. 2 nights in Stok Village House, visiting Matho, Shey and Stok. Drive to Numbra valley for 2 nights, stopping in Numbra Organic Retreat in Hundra, visiting local monasteries 1 night at Shey Village House Drive to Lamayuru and back to Alchi for 1 night stopping in Alchi Resort. Visit Alchi Choshkor Drive to Nimoo Village house for 3 nights, visiting Likir monastery, Basgo and Zanskar Gorge Fly to Delhi and back to UK.

Audley use Shakti Himalaya as the local agent for Ladakh

I have written detailed reviews for Shakti Himalaya and the different places we visited which can be found by doing a search for Ladakh.

Our pictures are here

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