It was hard to imagine I was still in India…
As the rest of India spat and sweltered entering June’s summer sweat, Ladakh pulled out its winter parkas to bundle up from the cold. Stepping off the plane, a surreal panorama of frost-tipped peaks and an arid Ladkhi mountain range unrolled before me. The vision was a marriage of extremes. The air was crisp, sharp, distinct, wearing the musk of old desert sand and ice. At that moment, I felt like I was injected into a David Lynch film… a strangely beautiful heaven.
If there was one place on earth I was born to see,… Ladakh was it!
Table of Contents: Ladakh Travel Guide | Behold, Ladakh, the Most Beautiful place in the world!
Located in Northeastern India (of Jammu and Kashmir) and wedged between the Himalayas and Kunlun mountains, Ladakh is a territory still in dispute between India and Pakistan. As such, the Indian military has a strong presence there.
Kashmir Valley and its lush beauty is said to be “Heaven on Earth”, such that it crossed my mind to dare a visit. But due to political unrest, whether or not it’s safe for foreign travelers, seems to be a swinging pendulum. It’s constantly flashing travel alerts; you’d think one has to die to get there.
Ladakh however, is just a mountain pass over. As a close neighbor, it shares some of the beauty… just in a more desert-like oasis way.
What an oasis.
Ladakh makes for a cinematic setting
Panoramic. Majestic. Bold. Enigmatic. Exotic. Enigmatic.
I’ve seen it on the silver screen in Bollywood films like the 3 Idiots, Dil Se and 2011’s Baraka sequel, Samsara.
Ironically, Ladakh’s terrain is arid desert, making Ladakhi towns and lifestyles appear rugged, worn and western, very cowboy-like. The main source for water is snowfall and due to the shortage of water sources, the land holds scant vegetation. But this lush scarcity and the land’s proximity to the brightness of the sun, gives way to the most striking colors… like putting vibrant color to canvas.
Vistas gleamed with the extremes of sand, rock and ice, as lime green trees stood on tiptoe, like pencils against a cerulean blue backdrop. Did I ever see clouds cast such a distinct shadow puppet over sweeping mountain ranges? If so, it never stood out enough to make itself memorable.
My eyes were like virgins again. “Seeing” felt like an activity I was doing for the first time. Passing through places like Nubra Valley or Magnetic Hill , I was a flea existing in Ladakh’s universe. No place had taken my breath away quite like this. It was one word…
Did this place really exist?
Entering Ladakhi ethnography
If you think the landscape is surreal in beauty, Ladakhi ehnicity is an ethereal beauty you can’t categorize upon sight.
Ladakhi ethnography is difficult to decipher. Many are said to be of Tibetan and Indo-Aryan descent- a mixture of Indian, Chinese, Tibetan (and at times, seemingly Caucasian). Many share exotic trademarks of a sun-kissed high altitude land — ash-colored skin and bright pink cheeks!
Ladakh is split into two main cities: Leh (this is where I stayed) and Kargil. Leh is the largest and the better-known city in Ladakh, due to its tour and trekking agencies. The overall culture is defined by Tibetan Buddhism, prayer wheels, Buddhist monasteries and locals dressed in a cocktail of traditional clothes and an old Tibetan-cowboy style. Meanwhile, the most of Kargil’s population are Muslims.
What to do in Ladakh
To watch Ladakh unfold, I highly recommend hiring a driver for a day or joining a trekking tour. You can find open tour listings on boards outside tour agencies, advertising travelers looking to share a journey and its expenses. I took a 2-day open tour, sharing a driver with an Indian couple from Mumbai.
Ladakh has great treks. Aside from staying in Leh -the central launching ground of trekking tours- travelers like visiting Nubra Valley, Kardung-la (the highest drivable pass), Hundar/Diskit ( two-humped camels and a giant Buddha), Kargil, Thiksey Monastary, Pangong Lake (a famous location due to Bollywood films).
Can’t believe I’m still in India and this is late May!
Indus & Zanskar confluence
3 humped camel in Nubra
Encountering Altitude Sickness (ALS syndrome)
When I awoke my second day, I thought I slept past my alarm. The sun was overhead, bright as if it were noon. It was only 6am. But Ladakh is a high altitude region, close to the sun.
Thus, you’ll probably meet the onslaught of altitude sickness (or ALS) in some form. High altitudes can take up to seven days to acclimate to and you may experience:
- Fatigue or Weakness
- Shortness of breath during exertion
- Persistent rapid pulse
- Decreased appetite
- Swelling of extremities
I experienced four of these conditions. For three days after my arrival, I had to take it easy. I wasn’t hungry and my heart raced from any exertion or strenuous activity. Climbing stairs, a walk up a sloped hill,… all activated a heavy heart palpitations and a feeling as if I were walking through deep sand. …Lying down to sleep, my heart raced as if I had just jumped out of a marathon !
Tip: It’s advised to take your first few days easy until you acclimate. No strenous activity; for instance, I wouldn’t take a trek as soon as I got there. Drink lots of water to keep from getting dehydrated. Sunscreen and lip balm are advised and your eyes may take a while to adjust when you go outside.
Getting Around in Ladakh
Most travelers get around three ways: local bus, hiring a driver or taxi, getting onto a tour.
Leh is a good launch point – it has a lot of trekking outfits and tour agencies. You can hire an independent tour, but there’s also options for budget travelers who want to take shared tours. Still, it doesn’t hurt to take the number of your driver at the airport if you like him. Many are more than willing to be your driver for the day.
Safety Tips for Solo Travelers in Ladakh
Overall, I didn’t encounter anything by way of scams or criminal intention. Being near the Pakistan border, the region is protected by the Indian army, so the area feels fairly safe. However, the region is large and travel is unpredictable; as a solo traveler, one should always practice street smarts.
How to Get to Ladakh
There are two ways to get there~ by bus/road or by air. What form of transportation you take is largely dependent on season. The roads are usually open during the summer months (May/June to September/October); it’s closed otherwise. Many travelers wanting to save money take the Leh-Manali bus. The roads were closed when I went, so I had no choice but go by air. Indian Airlines has regular flights via Delhi, Jammu, and Srinagar. Jet Airways flies regularly via Delhi.
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